Meth Use Is on the Rise in Southeast Asia – And COVID Is To Blame

An excess of drugs in the Golden Triangle region due to COVID export restrictions has led to an increase in meth use among young people and workers.
January 19, 2021, 12:28pm
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A meth user pictured in Myanmar in 2013. Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images

A COVID-19 bottleneck has led to Golden Triangle meth supplies leaking out into the region to fuel a rise in use among young people. 

Behind the constant flow of highly publicised, sometimes record-breaking meth seizures in Southeast Asia – featuring proud anti-drug cops and handcuffed smugglers standing around tables laden with cellophane-wrapped packages – little is known about how the trade is impacting local people. 

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Normally, much of the meth produced in the Golden Triangle – a global drug making hub in a remote jungle area where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet – is smuggled out to lucrative drug markets as far away as Australia and Japan, where the price of a kilo rises 100-fold. 

But, according to the UN’s expert in the region, COVID-19 border restrictions have led to an abundance of meth exports staying in the area. This has in turn fuelled a rise in use of the stimulant drug by young people and workers and rising addiction – and more people entering the region’s outdated and harsh drug treatment regimes.       

“During COVID, border closures, fewer flights and ways to move has meant there has been a shortage of meth coming out of the Golden Triangle and Southeast Asia, and we’ve seen price spikes in countries such as Australia where demand is high,” Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told VICE World News. “The messed up logistics has led to oversupply in the region itself. It's not getting out as it would normally and we are seeing a concentration of meth in the Mekong and surrounding countries.”

In Myanmar, Dr Nang Pann Ei Kham, a physician based in Yangon specialising in addiction, said that meth is gaining traction as a young people’s drug. 

“It’s become kind of hip,” she said, explaining the drug has a cleaner image than more traditional, opium-based highs. She said young people are using meth to party longer and harder. But they are also using it to work longer hours too. 

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It’s also become cheaper since the pandemic hit, according to Kham. Data compiled for the UNODC suggests meth tablets are now being sold for less than $1 now. She said meth pill suppliers are responding to increased demand from customers who have weathered rounds of lonely lockdowns.

Renaud Cachia, a researcher at the Transnational Institute (TNI), a global drug think-tank, said local drug markets in Myanmar and beyond have been seeded from the caravans heading outward from the Golden Triangle. 

“For meth, we’ve seen that expansion to every corner of every single region, with relatively common use,” Cachia said, describing the expansion of international trafficking routes, from Myanmar’s Shan State to Thailand and Laos, and into Karen State and Rakhine State, on the border with Bangladesh. “All along transiting areas you have domestic markets that have emerged. Along these routes and supply chains these local markets have mushroomed.”

Meth is also on the rise in Myanmar’s mining community working in the country’s massive jade quarries in Kachin state, near the Chinese border. 

Cachia said it’s common for labourers in the mines to use meth to cope with long work hours and heroin to relax after a gruelling shift in the hunt for rare gems. Research published by TNI found meth use was “almost a compelling necessity” for labourers sifting through rubble for overlooked jade. Adding heroin to that mix has created a pattern of heavy drug use that Cachia said can be hard to treat. 

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For the most part, even in Myanmar, the crucible of production for the region, meth usage most often occurs behind closed doors. “It’s said to be everywhere, but where?” said Kham. “Even if you go out and look, you don’t really get that sense of buying it so easily.”

In Malaysia, the constant meth busts have not surprised Dr Prem Kumar, head clinician at Solace Rehab in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Kumar serves as a consultant on drug-related issues to the Malaysian government and, while solid data is sparse, he sees a “huge demand” for both crystal and pill-form meth, driven largely by people in their 20s and 30s. 

“Meth is known as the poor man’s cocaine because it’s affordable,” said Kumar. But he said the drug is not just a problem among the country’s poor. About 90 percent of the patients at Solace, a high end residential treatment unit, are there for meth-related conditions. They are mostly professionals who use crystal meth as a performance enhancing drug. “Medical and legal professionals, those that need to work longer hours, think the drugs will help them work harder, and maybe it does to an extent,” Kumar said.

Malaysia does not conduct broad household surveys of drug use, but the available data shows a major upswing in the drug treatment admissions for meth use. The latest UNODC statistics show that yearly admissions increased more than 30-fold in seven years, from 528 in 2011 to 16,384 in 2018. But Kumar said the ongoing COVID pandemic may only be adding more fuel to an already hot market. Solace has seen a 50 percent spike in people seeking treatment since June, leading the clinic to develop online and outpatient counselling to cope with rising needs.

Across the border in Thailand, where tons of meth are spilling out through Myanmar’s porous borders, the drug is the most frequently found in police arrests and is the primary drug of use in 79 percent of drug treatment programmes. 

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But the endless cycle of drug busts never seem to make a difference. “It’s impossible to seal our country off from drug smuggling, the meth epidemic is clear proof of that,” said Dr Apinun Aramrattana, Director of the Northern Substance Abuse Center at the faculty of medicine in Chiang Mai University. “I think people are fed up with the drug war”. 

Aramrattana said Thailand’s increasingly liberal approach to narcotics control – the polar opposite of what is happening in the Philippines – could be the only weapon in dealing with major drug supply simmering just over the border in Myanmar. 

Part of the problem in a region increasingly saturated with cheap meth is that the tougher the anti-drugs rhetoric, the less likely nations will have an honest picture of the size and nature of their drug problems. Information about drug use in the region is slim or unreliable because of the climate of fear facing drug users.   

“Right now, if I were to get a survey form, and I'm sending it to the government, I would hesitate to share information. Not just about drugs, about anything,” said Inez Feria, head of the drug policy advocacy group NoBox Philippines. “It’s going back to this context of general fear and mistrust.”

Though the drugs crackdown in the Philippines has generated the most international press, authorities in Cambodia too are in the midst of their own “war on drugs” described as an “unmitigated disaster” by the human rights group Amnesty International. While drug seizures are high, officials cite rehab centre intake and arrest data to suggest there are just about 20,000 people in Cambodia who use or are addicted to drugs. For a country with a population of more than 16 million, that is suspiciously small. 

The Cambodian crackdown has helped to fill the nation’s prisons beyond capacity. More recently, when officials responsible for monitoring the system of jails fell ill with COVID-19, the state declined to either release prisoners or test widely for signs of the novel coronavirus. In that context, researchers and advocates say people who do use drugs have little reason to be forthright about their habits, for fear of serious reprisal. 

The region faces a dilemma. The harder the law treats drug users, the less authorities are able to understand the real scope of an already murky industry. Photo opportunities with heaps of meth may look impressive to the outside world. But without real and open efforts to investigate the nature of domestic drug markets and tackle demand, countries within and surrounding the Golden Triangle could be facing a rising tide of demand that can so easily be met.