A drug craze sweeps Thailand

Methamphetamines from Burma continue to flood Thailand where use among all ages has skyrocketed.

Thai officials say last year was the worst year on record for the use of methamphetamine, a form of speed, called ya ba, or "crazy medicine" here. The Thai military is so alarmed that it has labeled the surge in users a threat to national security.

Almost all of the methamphetamine is produced in labs in Burma (Myanmar), where the drug lords who made the Golden Triangle synonymous with heroin have diversified into a product that's cheaper to produce, smuggle, and market than heroin, Thai police officials say.

Five years ago, just a trickle of methamphetamines were reaching Thailand. Today it's a torrent. About 70,000 Thais were convicted for methamphetamine-related offenses last year, up from 16,000 in 1997. Roughly 90 percent of all drug cases last year involved methamphetamines, and narcotics-control officials estimate that 5 percent of the population uses the drug.

Hope amid an epidemic

Still, drug experts such as Kanda Choaymeung find hope in the current situation. The psychologist and director of the Rajadamri drug treatment center here says Thailand is finally getting its arms around the problem. "This drug snuck up on us,'' she says. "We were so focused on treating heroin addiction, we weren't prepared when it hit us."

In the past few years, a government-backed television and radio blitz with movie and sports stars has slowly changed the drug's image from harmless to sinister. Thailand's police force has become more adept at catching users. And treatment centers have adapted to the special needs of their patients.

"People didn't think it was dangerous,'' says Chuanpit Choomwattana, a drug-policy expert at Thailand's Narcotics Control board. "With heroin, you can see the addiction, the damage to people almost right away. Ya ba is more subtle at the start.''

Mrs. Kanda, who has participated in the overhaul of Thai treatment centers, says statistics and anecdotal evidence show that the drug's spread seems to be slowing for the first time. "Use will soon plateau," she says. "There is a natural evolution of a drug epidemic, whether it's cocaine or heroin, and I think we're near the top."

Still, millions of poor, laboring Thais use ya ba. It can cost as little as $1 per pill, and the pills, which are usually eaten or ground up and smoked, give users a feeling of hyper alertness.

In the northern provinces, where proximity to Burma makes ya ba plentiful and cheap, alarming stories have surfaced of farmers paying seasonal laborers with ya ba. Students take it as a cheap replacement for the designer drug ecstasy at dance clubs.

A barrage from Burma

Thai authorities estimate that 800 million pills – 13 pills for every Thai citizen – are produced in Burma annually. The Thai police say production has grown increasingly sophisticated there, with some labs turning out 50 million pills a year.

"The numbers reflect an epidemic; this is our biggest drug-control problem,'' says Ms. Choomwattana.

In a new report on Thai drug use in 2001, the Thai Narcotics Control Board stressed the way the drug cuts through class distinctions and age groups: "Never before has any narcotic reached out to all levels of Thai society like methamphetamine does," the report stated.

"Tommy" knows how ya ba became Thailand's most widely abused drug. Sitting in a treatment center overlooking the boat traffic on a Bangkok canal, the soft-spoken young man with small hoop earrings expects "to be fighting cravings for the rest of my life."

When Tommy (not his real name)was 12, he was a classic underachiever. A bright, verbal kid with an English father and a Thai mother, he felt ignored by his busy parents and drifted into a dangerous group of friends that included a motorbike gang in his middle class Bangkok neighborhood. "I turned to my friends as a second family, for love and belonging," he says.

He first took methamphetamines out of curiosity, and at the start of his early teens he was taking two $3 pills a week.

"When I took it, it felt like all of my problems melted away," Tommy says.

He was soon taking 12 pills a day.

"I started out buying with my pocket money, but it became very expensive. I had to do something else," he says. "I started stealing in the end, car stereos, motorbikes, anything. I stole a diamond ring from my sister, money from my parents. My whole life was revolving around drugs."

He became a dealer, introducing other students to the drug. When Tommy was 16, his parents sent him to an Australian drug-treatment center. He guesses that he's been through 10 different treatment courses. His latest relapse was a month ago, after a year of keeping himself clean.

"It's psychologically tiring, fighting against thinking about it all the time,'' he says. "I wake up in the morning with them on my mind: What color are they, how strong are they these days, how much do they cost? Ya ba has taken so much from me."

"With methamphetamines, the psychological component to the addiction is even stronger than with heroin,'' says Kanda. "It can be overpowering."

Finding a cure

That's why early treatment methods, based on heroin treatment protocols, were thwarted. Specialists brought a user in, cleared the physical signs of the drug from their system, and taught them strategies to avoid relapsing.

But with ya ba, says Kanda, that almost always failed. They found that long-term – more than six months – psychological counseling followed by twice-weekly meetings at a 12-step program like Narcotics Anonymous was needed to help users with their problem.

A ya ba spread through Asia?

Though law-enforcement officials say the cheap pills now being produced in Burma are mostly hitting the Thai market, that could change. Countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and India have reservoir populations of users among truck drivers and manual laborers, just as Thailand did at the start of its epidemic.

If production continues to increase, and use in Thailand has in fact plateaued, drug merchants may seek to carve out new markets, just as Burmese heroin production began to reach into European, Australian, and US markets after the Vietnam war.

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