Laos, Myanmar drug production changing in focus

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Drug production in both Laos and Myanmar, normally known for producing large quantities of opium as a base for heroin, is apparently shifting rapidly towards synthetic drugs, according to the recently released  World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The report found that since 2015, the area of cultivated opium poppy in Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin states has decreased by 25 per cent to 41,000 hectares. And, for good measure, heroin seizures in China, Cambodia and Thailand increased dramatically over the same period. For example, the Royal Thai Police reported an impressive 278-per cent increase in heroin seizures for 2017.

However, at the same time, productivity of poppy growers increased at Myanmar’s fields which are now producing 15 per cent higher yields compared to 2015, so the reduction in the area under cultivation has not that much impact on heroin supply in target countries such as Thailand, China and Australia.

And given rising competition from a revived mass opium production in Afghanistan and demand for heroin stabilising globally, drug cartels in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle are increasingly shifting their focus towards synthetic drugs, namely methamphetamines. They are easier, cheaper and discreeter to produce, and demand is rising across the world.

The UNODC revealed that criminal groups in Laos and Myanmar have become significant players in the global production of synthetic drugs. The numerous ungoverned spaces in both countries provide them with safe environments for producing large quantities of both low- and high-purity methamphetamine.

Low-purity amphetamine tablets are sold in many ASEAN countries as “yaba’” or”shabu.” This is a low-profit, high-sales-volume opportunity for criminal groups, which produce pills in the tens to hundreds of millions.  In contrast, higher-purity crystal methamphetamine (known as “ice”) with high profit margins is produced for other markets, including China and Australia.

The report also said that the potential disruption of supply of illicit drugs originating from Myanmar and Laos cannot work without addressing the underlying development problems in the region.

“As long as farmers can make more money from opium poppy than from other crops, the problem will continue. And as long as criminal groups can act with impunity in permissive environments, nothing will change,” the report said.

In dealing with these issues, lessons learned from Thailand’s successful opium poppy eradication programmes of the 1980s could be a starting point for policymakers, the UNODC recommends.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board of Thailand reported In January 2018 that the cultivation of opium is indeed on the decline in Thailand and shrank by 40 per cent year-on-year from an already low level, mainly due to strict law enforcement, but the illegal practice persists in several northern districts.

Aerial surveys between September last year and January identified 313 opium plots covering more than 44 hectares in remote rural highlands in four provinces, Chiang Mai, Tak, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai. There, opium is still grown either by individual farmers for household consumption or by investor-backed farmers for local distribution. The plantations are kept small and scattered to avoid detection, but authorities are aware of them and plan to destroy them.

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

Drug production in both Laos and Myanmar, normally known for producing large quantities of opium as a base for heroin, is apparently shifting rapidly towards synthetic drugs, according to the recently released  World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Drug production in both Laos and Myanmar, normally known for producing large quantities of opium as a base for heroin, is apparently shifting rapidly towards synthetic drugs, according to the recently released  World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The report found that since 2015, the area of cultivated opium poppy in Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin states has decreased by 25 per cent to 41,000 hectares. And, for good measure, heroin seizures in China, Cambodia and Thailand increased dramatically over the same period. For example, the Royal Thai Police reported an impressive 278-per cent increase in heroin seizures for 2017.

However, at the same time, productivity of poppy growers increased at Myanmar’s fields which are now producing 15 per cent higher yields compared to 2015, so the reduction in the area under cultivation has not that much impact on heroin supply in target countries such as Thailand, China and Australia.

And given rising competition from a revived mass opium production in Afghanistan and demand for heroin stabilising globally, drug cartels in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle are increasingly shifting their focus towards synthetic drugs, namely methamphetamines. They are easier, cheaper and discreeter to produce, and demand is rising across the world.

The UNODC revealed that criminal groups in Laos and Myanmar have become significant players in the global production of synthetic drugs. The numerous ungoverned spaces in both countries provide them with safe environments for producing large quantities of both low- and high-purity methamphetamine.

Low-purity amphetamine tablets are sold in many ASEAN countries as “yaba’” or”shabu.” This is a low-profit, high-sales-volume opportunity for criminal groups, which produce pills in the tens to hundreds of millions.  In contrast, higher-purity crystal methamphetamine (known as “ice”) with high profit margins is produced for other markets, including China and Australia.

The report also said that the potential disruption of supply of illicit drugs originating from Myanmar and Laos cannot work without addressing the underlying development problems in the region.

“As long as farmers can make more money from opium poppy than from other crops, the problem will continue. And as long as criminal groups can act with impunity in permissive environments, nothing will change,” the report said.

In dealing with these issues, lessons learned from Thailand’s successful opium poppy eradication programmes of the 1980s could be a starting point for policymakers, the UNODC recommends.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board of Thailand reported In January 2018 that the cultivation of opium is indeed on the decline in Thailand and shrank by 40 per cent year-on-year from an already low level, mainly due to strict law enforcement, but the illegal practice persists in several northern districts.

Aerial surveys between September last year and January identified 313 opium plots covering more than 44 hectares in remote rural highlands in four provinces, Chiang Mai, Tak, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai. There, opium is still grown either by individual farmers for household consumption or by investor-backed farmers for local distribution. The plantations are kept small and scattered to avoid detection, but authorities are aware of them and plan to destroy them.

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