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ASEAN must find solution to spiralling meth epidemic

By John Coyne

Many ASEAN member state governments are no strangers to the social and security ramifications of the illicit drug trade. Indeed, many greater Mekong region states have been locked into 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 methamphetamine being produces in Myanmar is pushing the ASEAN region towards what can only be termed a drug epidemic.

Unfortunately the region is ill prepared to deal with the problem in terms of law enforcement strategy, let alone medical treatment or the social impacts of a full blown drug epidemic.

Even with their extensive social safety nets, over the last decade, the US, Canada and Australia have been ravaged by methamphetamine.

For the last two years, it seems that hardly a week goes by without an ASEAN police force reporting a new record seizure of methamphetamine.

In June, Thai authorities seized 10 million made-in-Myanmar methamphetamine pills and nearly half a tonne of crystal methamphetamine hidden in packages of tea.

If the region’s authorities are honest with themselves, they’ll acknowledge that seizures like this are unlikely to result in any change in the availability or price of illicit drugs. The massive volume of production of illicit drugs in mega-laboratories in China and Myanmar ensures that the drugs seized in these police operations are seamlessly replaced with little or no change in availability to users.

ASEAN countries can ill afford to present massive seizures as evidence of their success in reducing the supply of illicit drugs. Over the last three years Australian authorities continually argue that they’re not going to arrest their way out of their methamphetamine epidemic.

Perhaps one of the most worrying trends for ASEAN countries is the increased purity of the methamphetamine that is now available to users. Two years ago, the majority of the methamphetamine being consumed by addicts in ASEAN countries was what was colloquially referred to as ‘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.

While successful policy responses to drug epidemics are hard to find, one ASEAN country has been successful in the past.

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 the Thai 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, we can’t take that example as a cookie-cutter solution to the production of synthetic drugs. There were many factors that contributed to the Royal Project’s success. But we can take heart that some measures, especially those deeply rooted in community development, result in improved security conditions and reduced drug production.

Addressing ASEAN’s emerging Ice problem is going to require greater regional cooperation but not just in terms of law enforcement. Before such cooperation can be considered ASEAN’s leaders need to acknowledge that there is a problem, and that it is rapidly spiraling out of control.

Originally published by: The Bangkok Post on 20 Nov 2018