Last week, Vientiane played host to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s High Level Conference on Transnational Organised Crime in Laos and the Mekong Region. The UNDOC brought together senior Lao officials, international partners, and select experts from neighbouring Mekong countries.
The conference agenda was focused on improving the collective understanding of the vulnerabilities of Laos to transnational organised crime. While various organised crime problems were discussed, the focus of the event was undoubtedly the increasing challenge of methamphetamine production in the Mekong subregion.
Mekong governments are no strangers to the social and security ramifications of illicit drug production in the Golden Triangle. Indeed, all of the Mekong region states have been locked in a war against drugs, especially heroin, for decades. But even for these countries the scale of previous illicit drug challenges is already being overshadowed by the region’s rapidly evolving methamphetamine crisis.
The increasing volume and purity of meth being produced in Myanmar is pushing the region towards what can only be termed a drug epidemic.
Increasingly, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are forming the front line in the latest chapter of the region’s war on drugs. For the last two years, hardly a month passes without one of these countries setting a new meth seizure record.
In June, Thai authorities seized 10 million made-in-Myanmar meth pills and nearly half a tonne of crystal-meth hidden in packages of tea. And last month a mega-lab in Myanmar, capable of producing tonnes of meth, was raided.
Unfortunately, seizures like this are unlikely to result in any change in the availability or price of illicit drugs. Mega-laboratories operating in Myanmar ensure that any drugs that are seized will be quickly replaced.
Perhaps one of the most worrying trends for the region is that the purity of methamphetamine is also rapidly increasing.
Two years ago, the majority of the meth being consumed by the region’s addicts was “yaba”. Yaba is a low purity and quality methamphetamine tablet that is mixed with caffeine and taken in pill form. Now, the region’s organised crime groups are replacing yaba with crystal methamphetamine, or “ice”. “Ice” is not only more addictive, but has devastating physical and mental health impacts on its users.
While successful policy responses to drug epidemics are hard to find, Thailand’s experience with opium poppy production gives the region reason for hope about the future.
Forty years ago some 100,000 hectares of farmland in Thailand was being used to cultivate opium. By 2007, the country was declared opium-free by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This was made possible by HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in 1969 established the Royal Project, which provided alternative livelihoods for those involved in growing and refining opium. The ambitious project was underpinned by rigorous research on alternative crops. The Thai government and international partners then developed critical infrastructure that gave farmers growing new crops access to markets.
To be sure, there were many factors that contributed to the Royal Project’s success. But the region can take heart that some measures, especially those deeply rooted in community development, result in improved security conditions and reduced drug production.
Unfortunately the region is ill prepared to deal with the emerging methamphetamine epidemic in terms of law enforcement strategy. This week’s conference revealed that addressing Asean’s emerging “ice” problem is going to require a stronger commitment to regional cooperation.
If the region is to be adequately prepared for a full-blown drug epidemic, more will also need to be done in terms of social policy at national and regional levels.
Dr John Coyne is head of the Border Security and Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement Programmes at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.