Raw opium is prepared for smoking in an opium field in western Myanmar in this December 28, 2014 file photo. Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun

Myo Min knows all too well about the negative effects of excessive drug use. He started using methamphetamines more than a decade ago after being pressured to try it by some friends, and quickly graduated to heroin.

Since then, he has seen it all: sleepless nights, failing health, fights with his family, paranoia, and tragedy. Several years ago, a close friend became so paranoid from using drugs that he jumped from the fourth floor of a building to his death.

Despite all of this, Myo Min hasn’t managed to get himself completely clean.

“It is much easier now to buy yaba compared to before,” he said, referring to Thai word for the cheap methamphetamine pill. “I sometimes use yaba now, although not as much as before. Now I think I have things more under control.”

Myo Min’s experience is not unique in Myanmar, where health workers say that drug use is becoming increasingly common in many communities across the country.

For decades, Myanmar has been synonymous with drug production, and use, in particular the country’s Shan state, which forms part of the infamous “Golden Triangle” alongside Thailand and Laos.

Traditionally, the country has been closely associated with the production of heroin, and until 1991 was the largest producer of the drug in the world, before being overtaken by Afghanistan.

An old man holds opium poppies in Myanmar’s Shan state. Photo: iStock

Although trends are changing, opium production remains an issue in Myanmar: the country is still the second largest producer in the world.

The Myanmar Opium Survey 2018, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), estimates that areas under opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar covered 37,300 hectares in 2018, down from 41,000 hectares a year earlier, continuing a downward trend that started in 2014.

The vast majority of Myanmar’s poppy is grown in Shan state, which accounted for about 90% of the 2018 total.

The reported fall in poppy cultivation in Myanmar does not necessarily constitute good news, however. Since about 2010, drug production in the country, and again particularly in Shan state, has shifted sharply to methamphetamines, including yaba and the more expensive crystal meth, also known as “ice.”

The UNODC report noted a “sharp increase” in the supply and demand for synthetic drugs, particularly methamphetamine, across East and Southeast Asia.

It reported that of the 11 countries in the region sharing drug data with UNODC, nine are now reporting methamphetamine as their primary drug of concern, as opposed to a decade ago when four countries were reporting methamphetamine and seven heroin.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group said that Shan state has emerged as “one of the largest global centres” for the production of crystal meth.

The report, Fire and Ice: Conflict and Drugs in Myanmar’s Shan State, found that production takes place in “safe havens” in the state, run by militias and paramilitary groups allied with the Myanmar military, as well as in areas under the control of non-state armed actors.

“The trade in ice, along with amphetamine tablets and heroin, has become so large and profitable that it dwarfs the formal economy of Shan State,” the report said, adding that the drugs trade also fuels criminality and corruption in the state, and hinders efforts to end the country’s decades-long civil war.

In January 2018, authorities in Myanmar seized 30 million meth pills, as well as two tonnes of ice and heroin, in what authorities said was a record bust valued at US$54 million.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told Asia Times that the seizures in the country and across the region were “staggering”, and that there is “seemingly no end in sight.”

“We are beyond concerned about the rise in production, trafficking, and use of meth,” he said.

Authorities in Myanmar have taken some measures to try and control the drugs issue in the country, although there are questions about how effective they have been.

In February 2018, authorities announced the National Drug Control Policy, which recommended tackling the drugs issue with responses that are health- and human rights-focussed and promoted international cooperation.

At the time of its release, the new policy was largely welcomed by civil society groups and nongovernmental organization advocating for a more progressive drugs policy in Myanmar.

However, almost a year since the policy was announced, it’s not clear how effectively it is being implemented in a country that has traditionally taken a heavy-handed approach to tackling the drugs issue.

Myanmar police officers stand next to seized drugs to be burned at an International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking event outside Yangon, June 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

According to UNODC, 48% of Myanmar’s prisoners are detained for drug-related offenses, while in some prisons the percentage of drug-related offenders is between 70% and 80%.

In June 2018, the President’s Office established the Drug Activity Special Complaint Department, which promised to “properly reward” those who informed authorities about drug use and production in the country.

State media has provided regular updates on the department’s activities. According to a notice in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar, the department opened 258 cases between January 13 and 19, with 367 people – 306 men and 61 women – being arrested.

The notice said that the seizures included 5,000 grams of heroin, 600,00 grams of ice, three million “stimulant tablets”, as well as marijuana, ketamine, and a homemade gun.

“Efforts for fighting the drug trafficking has been stepped up and the ministry will report on further exposed cases,” the notice said.

However, such an approach is counter-productive to the new policy, according to those advocating for a more progressive approach to the issue.

Children walking through an opium plantation in Shan state, Myanmar. Photo: AFP/Phyo Hein Kyaw

Nang Pann Ei Kham, coordinator of the Drug Policy Advocacy Group, said that many of those arrested were undergoing methadone treatment for their drug use, something they would be unlikely to receive while in prison.

Instead, she said authorities should focus on cooperating more closely with communities where drug use is common.

“The approach of targeting those with small possession of drugs is counter-productive,” she said. “[Authorities] should divert their attention to focus on health-focussed programs and help [people who use drugs] to reintegrate into society.”

She added that the crackdown had made many drug users afraid, especially those living in rural areas, and that at one harm reduction center in Kachin state the number of people seeking treatment for their drug use had halved since the crackdown began.

Sai Aung Kham, chairman of the National Drug Users Network Myanmar, said he had his own experience of being in prison after being arrested for drug possession.

“There are many disadvantages to this approach. If people are receiving ART [Antiretroviral Therapy] for HIV, they might not get that treatment in prison. At the time [of my arrest] there was no healthcare in prison,” he told Asia Times.

“It was announced in the policy to target drug producers, so putting users in jail doesn’t work,” he said. “Instead, they should focus on healthcare and providing a good environment for drug users.”

*EDITOR’S NOTE: Names have been changed in this article to protect sources against possible reprisal.

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