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’Yaba’ Use Still on the Rise in Southeast Asia

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Yaba tablets, which are a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine, have been on the scene in Thailand for years. The drug’s popularity has now spread and countries throughout Southeast Asia and beyond are seeing increased yaba consumption, addiction, manufacturing, and related crime.

Yaba, which means ‘crazy drug’ in Thai, can be taken orally or melted and inhaled and gives users increased energy, alertness, and a sense of euphoria. Often the pills are laced with fruity or vanilla flavouring, masking the nasty chemical compound found inside. The active ingredient methamphetamine is highly addictive, and with regular use pleasurable feelings dissipate and are replaced with a host of negative effects including violent behaviour, paranoia, and acute psychosis.

The Rise of Yaba in Asia

Yaba has long been popular in the poorer Mekong region countries of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia, but its use has now spread to wealthier countries such as South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore.

As a stimulant, the drug’s allure is similar to that of cocaine and appeals to people in all socioeconomic positions. The euphoria, seemingly endless energy for work, studying or staying up all night to party, and low price all lure people in to giving it a try. However, with regular use yaba addiction occurs quickly and users are then left with nowhere to turn.

Yaba was first used mainly by farmers and truck drivers in Thailand, and the presence of methamphetamine tablets amongst vulnerable farming communities is still rampant. Some employers buy the drug for farmers, and there are even reports of land owners dissolving the drug in farmer’s drinking water. Unfortunately, farmers are not the only citizens directly targeted, and young people are also targets for dealers looking to make a profit.

In poorer farming regions, many teens have to give up their education to help their families make a living by working on the farm. Some thought they had found a solution in the form of yaba which gave them the energy to work the rubber plantations at night, and still attend school during the day. But as one teen shares, this temporary solution only lead to long term problems and inevitably addiction which compromised his ability to go to school and work, and lands many in prison.

In Bangladesh, where yaba is a new and growing problem, the drug is more expensive than heroin and considered a “white collar drug.” The director of Dhaka’s CREA drug rehab centre in Bangladesh says before 2011 the vast majority of the centre’s clients were heroin users. Since 2011 the number of yaba users started rising and now 60-70% of the centre’s clients are addicted to the stimulant.

It is the increased production and distribution of meth tablets that is fuelling rising consumption and popularity of the drug in the region. The drug can be found on every corner and getting high ‘is as easy as going to 7-Eleven’.

Unbelievable Numbers of Meth Tablet Seizures across Asia

Across the Asia-Pacific region, methamphetamine seizures have quadrupled over five years, and the UN cites rising wealth as one reason for a boom in production and consumption. Myanmar officials recently discovered an abandoned truck outside Yangon carrying approximately 27 million methamphetamine tablets. Thai police also seized more than 300,000 yaba pills in the past three months and arrested six drug trafficking suspects.

Myanmar is notorious for narcotic production and distribution, and is still second in the world for opium cultivation, behind Afghanistan. However, the country is now by far the region’s largest producer of yaba. For many the drug has become more profitable than heroin, as it is cheaper and easier to make and does not rely on erratic opium harvest, plus it is easy to distribute and highly addictive.

In 2013 the UNODC estimated that 1.4 billion meth pills are produced in Myanmar annually. In Myanmar’s eastern Shan State where opium production has plagued the area for decades, and now meth production is rampant, three in five young people are thought to be regular yaba users.

Bangladesh, which is located West of Myanmar, has seen a major increase in meth trafficking and use. In 2008 authorities seized just 36,000 pills. One year later that number rose to 130,000 pills seized. By 2012 nearly two million pills were seized. Earlier this year the country seized 1.5 million yaba pills in a single bust, the largest seizure to date.

The continued increase in intercepted pills follows the drug’s soaring popularity in the country. However, corruption threatens to thwart Bangladesh’s attempts to stop the flow of the drug across its borders from Myanmar.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, plus seven other nations, plans to lower customs barriers and build more roads in order to help free up trade and improve transport, which will have its benefits, but will also make things worse as far as drug trafficking goes. ASEAN nations will need to be aware of the potential increase in trafficking and implement more effective strategies to prevent the travel of drugs across borders.

Limited Addiction Treatment and Asia’s Harsh Criminalisation

Southeast Asia has notoriously harsh drug penalties including the death penalty for drug trafficking in some areas. Discussions of solutions to growing drug problems in the region rarely focus on rehabilitation. While thwarting production and distribution of drugs is a worthwhile endeavour, rehabilitating addicts will help decrease demand as well create safer communities.

Some addiction treatment centres are popping up in the region and can provide effective drug addiction treatment. Criminalisation of users only creates a cycle of incarceration and addiction. Especially if young people receive early intervention for their drug abuse, before severe addiction develops, lives can be saved from both death and incarceration.

The low cost of addictive synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, coupled with increased wealth across Asia, as well as corruption and poor policy, ensures that addiction’s effects on communities will continue to grow. Now is the time for ASEAN leaders to learn the facts about addiction and work to rehabilitate those with the disease while also keeping as many drugs off the street as possible.

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