Opium crop in Myanmar drops, but UN cautious

SYNTHETIC DRUGS::While Myanmar saw a 25 percent drop in poppy cultivation, drug addiction remains a problem in the region as people switch to meth

Reuters, BANGKOK

Thu, Dec 07, 2017 - Page 6

A “dramatic” drop in opium cultivation in Myanmar underscored a regional boom in demand for illegal synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, which many Asian countries are struggling to combat, a senior UN official said yesterday.

The area under opium poppy cultivation dropped by a quarter between 2015 and this year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report.

“The drop in opium production is welcome, but it is not a victory,” UNDOC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Jeremy Douglas said.

“It appears to confirm that the shift in the regional drug market to synthetic drugs is well underway, and that the opium economy is being disrupted,” he said.

China and most Southeast Asian countries have reported growing demand for methamphetamine — a highly addictive synthetic drug also known as speed, shabu and yaba — and the Philippines is waging a bloody “war on drugs” to tackle it.

Meanwhile, regional demand for heroin, which is derived from opium poppies, has remained stable or decreased, with many younger drug users preferring methamphetamine, UNODC data showed.

The UNODC estimated that Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin states cultivated 41,000 hectares of opium poppy this year, a 25 percent drop from the 54,500 hectares reported in its last survey in 2015.

For the previous decade, opium cultivation had increased annually before stabilizing at high levels, UNDOC data showed.

The area under cultivation in Afghanistan, the world’s biggest opium producer, hit a record high of 328,000 hectares this year, the UNODC said last month.

Burmese Minister of the Interior Kyaw Swe said in a statement released by the UNODC that his government was “pleased to see progress” and would support programs that provide alternative livelihoods to opium-growing communities.

Myanmar is the source of most of Southeast Asia’s methamphetamine, which is mostly produced in lawless border regions outside the government’s control.

Douglas also said it was “reasonable to assume” that Asian organized crime groups were making or planning to make fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more potent and profitable than heroin.

In October, US President Donald Trump said “the flood of cheap and deadly fentanyl” in the US was fueling a public health emergency of opioid addiction and death.

“People like to stretch profits in any business, and fentanyl is the ultimate profit-stretcher,” Douglas said. “You can cut out the poppy farmers completely.”