Yaba: The Crazy Medicine of the Golden Triangle

yaba users in Thailand

Yaba, a potent concoction of methamphetamine and caffeine, has been sweeping through East and Southeast Asian drugs markets in recent years, leaving an enormous impact on the region, including rapidly gaining popularity among youth.

Young people living in rural areas of the Golden Triangle -- a region encompassing parts of Burma, Thailand and Lao PDR -- are often faced with having to choose between going to school or forfeiting their education in order to help support their families by going to work.

A recent article by Al Jazeera examined how some children in Thailand thought they’d successfully found a third option; do both through using yaba to stay awake for long periods of time, meaning that they can work all night on the family rubber farm and then go to school in the day. At least for a while.

As one teenager told Al Jazeera: "After a little while, I stopped going to school every day. I just didn't have the will or the strength. I could only go to school when I had taken yaba."

However, eventually yaba -- which in Thai means "crazy medicine" -- consumes the lives of its users leaving young people with no work, no education and suffering from addiction.

This problem is further fueled by the blatant targeting of youth by dealers and producers of yaba; pills are made to smell sweet, come in an array of colors and have a variety of tastes such as strawberry and chocolate.

The Economist highlighted the extent of the problem across the region, explaining that three out of five young people in Shan State, Burma, now regularly use yaba, with similar figures seen in Kayin State as well.

It is not only in agricultural areas that children are the dealers’ focus. Poor inner city children are used as couriers for the dealers and more often than not end up becoming hooked themselves, resorting to being paid in drugs rather than money. The prevalence of yaba use among young people in the region is so concerning that some fear it could leave a profound mark on a whole generation

While youth use naturally garners a great deal of media attention, it is in reality just the tip of the iceberg with yaba. Sparked largely by the shift into the youth market in the late 1990s, the demand for yaba saw an uptick in the following years, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and has spread from low-level workers doing jobs like rubber farming, jade mining and long-haul driving, through to every social class. It has now become a regular addition to the socialite and tourist party scenes and is so common that even a monk was caught using it to maintain a suppressed appetite, according to The Guardian.

The UNODC estimated in 2013 that 1.4 billion yaba pills are produced annually in Burma, with a street value of $8.5 billion.This drug is now more profitable than heroin for many in the area, due to the fact that it’s cheaper to make, easier to distribute and highly addictive. It can be consumed in pill form or crushed down and snorted, smoked or injected.

As with any methamphetamine-based drug, users become rapidly dependent on yaba and this comes with a long list of serious side effects. Many treatment centers in the region now deal solely with yaba patients suffering from problems ranging in severity such as violent behavior, memory loss, paranoid delusions, psychotic episodes and psychosis similar to schizophrenia.

The ease of production combined with the enormous profitability and popularity of this drug means there is little chance that prevalance rates of use will see any marked decline in the Far East any time soon. With harm reduction services in the region often ill-equipped to deal with such problems, and drug policies typically oriented around the harsh criminalization of users, the phenomenon of yaba looks set to continue unabated.