Yaa baa, the drug driving Thais crazy

by AFP/Pascale Trouillaud, Apr 3, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

BANGKOK, March 30, 2003 - From the clandestine laboratories of Myanmar to the pockets of several million Thai users, the methamphetamine pills known as "yaa baa" are wreaking havoc in supplanting heroin as Thailand's number one killer drug.

Following the century-old trade routes used by heroin traffickers and other smugglers, the potent little pill has woven its way into the fabric of Thai society like no other vice in decades, and is having disastrous effects on the brains of its unsuspecting consumers.

Yaa baa, or crazy medicine as methamphetamine is known in Thailand, is in the crosshairs of a two-month anti-drugs crackdown here that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,900 suspected traffickers.

The brutal, no-holds barred blitz indicates the soaring level of concern over the drug since its popularity mushroomed in the mid-1990s, making Thailand the world's number one consumer.

What's frightening about the psychotropic drug is its extremely broad use across society, with Thais using it for both work and pleasure, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy and Joel Meissonnier explain in "Yaa Baa", their book recently published by the Institute of Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC).

Construction workers, sailors, farmers and taxi drivers take the drug to help them through long working days, students use it to get through exam periods and clubbers use it to help them dance the night away.

Yaa baa possesses several qualities that have helped it supplant heroin as the drug of choice in Thailand.

The drug, the book's authors write, "conveys a completely positive image". Being synthetic, it appears modern and inoffensive, while the energy, confidence and euphoric feeling it gives users has lent it an image as a "drug of happiness".

The small pills, of which there are at least 90 types, can also be easily consumed: similar to an aspirin, they can be popped or dissolved in a glass of water, taken intravenously, pulverised and inhaled, even smoked.

For producers, yaa baa is attractive because it is easy to manufacture -- instructions are available on the Internet -- and free from the climatic uncertainties that dog other drugs.

Heroin, on the other hand, requires opium poppy as its raw ingredient while cocaine depends on yields from the coca plant.

Another advantage is its extremely affordable price: before the start of Thailand's drugs war on February 1 pushed the price of yaa baa up by around 300 percent, it cost a mere 60 baht (1.50 dollars) or so per pill on the streets.

But the small price still represents a huge mark-up on the five-cent cost of production -- and unleashed the flood of some 800 million pills into Thailand last year from neighbouring Myanmar.

"The majority of the drug comes indeed from Myanmar particularly the areas controlled by the Wa of the UWSA (United Wa State Army)," the authors write, referring to the pro-Yangon ethnic group said to operate around 50 laboratories close to the border, as well as mobile production units.

Alleged links between Myanmar's military rulers and the UWSA -- and the resulting lack of law enforcement -- as well as the remote jungle canopy under which the UWSA operate, conspire to make Myanmar an unrivalled regional producer.

The drug has become a specialty of the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar converge and much of the world's opium is still produced.

Methamphetamine is overtaking heroin as the production drug of choice in the area and is profiting enormously from the distribution networks that heroin trafficking has already established, according to Chouvy and Meissonnier.

Some five percent of Thailand's population is now estimated to abuse methamphetamine, a figure the International Narcotics Control Bureau says makes it the largest per capita consumer in the world.

The drug has been around in other forms for years, first used in the 1920s as an antidepressant and then as a psychostimulant during World War II and the Vietnam war.

Armies of "ants," recruited from among impoverished ethnic minorities, transport the pills along a multitude of routes, with protectors including Myanmar soldiers and Thai police and bureaucrats allowing them to eventually reach consumers in Thailand.

One pill will pass through seven intermediaries from the frontier runner to the retailer, who will usually sell more to the drug user than he or she requires, the book's authors say.

This creates another dealer -- which explains the drug's easy availability across Thailand.

Owners of boats in the southern coastal province of Ranong and construction foremen in Bangkok are known to force their workers to take the drug at the beginning of the workday.

And occasionally in rural areas, "the farmers dissolve the drug in a bottle which they drink while working."

But it is the kingdom's youth who are most at risk. Consumers are as young as seven and "school has become one of the main hubs for trafficking of methamphetamine."

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