YANGON — The use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) is on the rise across Myanmar, Thailand and southern China, according to a new report by the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute (TNI).
“Methamphetamine use in Myanmar, Thailand and southern China: Assessing Practices, Reducing Harm,” launched Monday in Yangon, says ATS use has been on the up across the region for the past decade.
That’s despite what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently said was a drop in the area under poppy cultivation in Myanmar from 41,000 hectares in 2017 to 37,300 hectares last year, continuing a downward trend since 2014 in the world’s second largest opium producer.
TNI says more than a year of research went into its report, including visits to Yangon, Kachin State and Tanintharyi Region.
“Trends are quite similar in the areas where we had conducted the research,” TNI Myanmar Program researcher Renaud Cachia told The Irrawaddy at the launch.
“Methamphetamine is popular and many people use and the availability has become more easier. The prices have either decreased or some places increased…. But where they increased, they are small increases and they are quite available,” he said.
Depending on the area, the prices of a tablet — also known as WY, yaba or yama — varies from 1,000 kyats to 3,500 kyats, according to TNI.
U Ye Thiha, a member of a drug users network in Shan State’s Lashio Township, said meth prices in the area have remained stable since 2000.
“One WY tablet costs about 500 kyats, but sometimes you can get it at the original price of 300, 400 kyats,” he said.
U Ye Thiha said the tablets remain abundant despite the rising number of drug busts.
He said he took meth for several years before joining the network in 2007 to promote harm reduction practices among fellow users.
Nang Hom, who works with the Pa-O Youth Organization in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, said meth pills in her area go or as little as 200 kyats.
With easy access to the little pink tablets, she said, even boys as young as 12 and girls in university are trying them.
In March, police seized 10 million meth pills in Rakhine State and Magwe Region worth more than 7 billion kyats ($4.6 million). Last year, an operation led by the President’s Office netted 211.1 billion kyats ($132 million) worth of meth tablets and crystal meth between June and October.
“While methamphetamine tablets are mostly smoked, crystal methamphetamine has a greater potential to be injected and is also a more potent substance. It therefore carries specific health risks that need to be addressed through the lens of public health rather than criminal justice,” TNI said in its report.
Researchers and drug policy experts urged the governments to consider creating robust public health approaches to reduce the use of ATS rather than rely on repressive laws.
Cachia said a better understanding of meth use was needed to develop effective interventions that can help reduce the negative consequences of drug uses, help people protect their health and create safer communities.
“All of these countries have tried to respond to increasing drug use with ever-more punitive measures, more arrests, more seizures everywhere and very significant increases in the number of arrests and in the number of seizures in Myanmar, but also in Thailand, also in China, in Vietnam — all across the region,” he said. “The results everywhere were similar, where they have not been successful in curbing the use. So … they should review the strategy.”
But in Myanmar, Cachia said, the government’s line was about as sophisticated as “drugs are bad.”
“Often we found out that people who use methamphetamine in Myanmar did not have anywhere they could get the information on the products, so they have to learn by experiences,” he said. “So they started using and then they came to understand what are the benefits, what are the negative consequences, and they became somehow experts with a lot of knowledge. But they have to learn by experience.”
There are also social and legal barriers to raising awareness about drug and harm reduction practices, said U Lin Aung Thu, program coordinator for the Asia Harm Reduction Network. The non-government group has been working in Kachin and Shan states and in Sagaing Region on harm reductions awareness, treatment and prevention for more than 15 years.
“It is best that people don’t use it,” U Lin Aung Thu said.
But if they do, he added, and if they are aware of the possible health consequences, they can help protect themselves from infections from HIV and other diseases.