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Yaba: Crazy drug or crazy people?

Yaba is a pill that always contains caffeine and methamphetamine in varying quantities but caffeine makes up the majority of the ingredients, other substances obviously find themselves into the mix as with any unregulated substance. The drug methamphetamine has made a somewhat meteoric rise in the past two decades all over the world but here in Thailand is has become the drug of choice. The pills that circulate are the most common method for ingestion, with these being either orally ingested or smoked usually.

Thailand has had a problem with Yaba for some time now and it has been called a ‘national crisis’ for well over ten years. In these ten years the strategy has not changed; prohibition and the tactics that stem from it such as harsher sentences, drug seizures and border checks. The problem has, predictably, got much worse. The policy revolves around the logic that if you stem supply the problem will get better. If you make the prison sentence longer people will not use or supply the drug. December this year will mark 80 years since prohibition of alcohol was repealed in the United States. That great power and the rest of the world that follows its lead on these matters still have yet to learn the lessons that that period taught.

Since the crackdown started in around 2002 the price of Yaba has risen by a multitude of 40. This drug that caused problems before has been made expensive, creating extra evils that didn’t exist before. A rise in acquisitive crime is an obvious consequence of the policy, so is violence as a result of the ever more militant methods of catching those involved in this trade. The authorities are locked into a race to the very bottom, their policies drive the trade.

The producers are usually to be found across the porous border in Myanmar. Here is a state that struggles to control what is happening inside its own land, let alone in nearby countries. The terrain in the border regions, long time drug routes, is difficult to govern and the area is vast. To control the influx of drugs and people across this border is an exercise in futility, no matter how many billions of dollars you throw at it. Many of the producers are groups at war with the central government in Rangoon, the drug trade gives them a much needed revenue stream to continue their struggle for independence. They are incentivized to produce this drug and as supply is stemmed the cost of their product rises. This gives them even higher profits and incentivizes further production.

The dealers are usually extremely poor and are often users themselves already. The trade gives them a way to earn extra money or maybe to pay for their habit. For the most addicted, it is a way around committing acquisitive crime to get the funds required. Dealers as well as users fill prisons regardless of whether they have committed any violent crime or stolen anyone’s private property. The costs of being involved in the trade are high and continue to get higher as government policy and tactics get ever more draconian; people continue to trade in the commodity in ever greater numbers regardless. The fact that sellers of the drug are not regulated in any way leads to problems including deadly adulterants and easy access to the drug by children and those most vulnerable in society.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug. The rush that it gives users is very pleasurable and the down is prolonged and depressing. It is a drug that helps it users to stay alert and work harder and for longer but the long term problems associated with dependency are destructive. A user without adequate funds will have to work longer hours and will necessarily need more of the stimulant. As the addiction grows worse the addict will be forced to turn to crime in order to fund the habit. Most users are working males who cannot afford to pay the vastly inflated prices that the dealers now demand for the drug. Addicts will continue to be economically driven to get more ‘bang for their buck’ and will shift to more dangerous methods of ingestion including smoking or injecting the substances. Both methods are more likely to lead to the paranoid psychotic state that has been so widely documented in a tiny minority of users.

The rise in the methamphetamine trade mirrors the decline in the opium trade in the Golden Triangle. 15 years ago this area was responsible for up to 50% of the world production of heroin. After the decline of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S occupied state now accounts for over 90% of world production of opiates with Andean nations also vying for some of the pie, as it were. This decline in production has led to a replacement of the commodity. The new substance is much more affordable and easier to produce, transport and, perhaps importantly, to sell; it is a party drug rather than an anesthetic ‘downer’.

Examples of how not to fight this social problem can be found in Latin America where the 30 plus year fight against drugs has long been lost. Militarisation of the police force through U.S military aid has led to the most grotesque injustices and the fight against the trade has consumed the nation state to a point where some of these states now struggle to cope with the most basic social issues because of the focus that is put on fighting this war against a set of economic incentives which are created by those fighting it. The more they crack down on the supply, the greater the incentives to supply get.

Crop replacement is used in cocaine hydrochloride producing countries such as Colombia and opium producing countries such as Afghanistan but the incentives are far less lucrative to the poor farmer. The tactic is being used in Myanmar with the idea that poor people could grow flowers instead of producing methamphetamine; the reader by this stage will already know how successful that has been… Officials aren’t paid enough to give them a reason not to take bribes; this is the case all over the world but in this area, with its endemic culture of corruption, it is madness to think that you will ever get supply to zero.

Taking out dealers creates what is academically referred to as the ‘hydra-head’ problem, which will be familiar to anyone with a remote interest in Greek mythology, whereby you cut one head off and two replace it. This is what happens when you take out dealers; lucrative opportunities invite more willing and able traders. This is what Karl Marx referred to as supply creating demand; the commodity here being labour. The same happens at the top of the organization if you take out the big dealers. The biggest and best example is Pablo Escobar. After his assassination by C.I.A backed forces, the cocaine trade in Colombia became less centralized, his Meddellin cartel lost much of its direction through infighting and rivalry and the cocaine trade became a different, less controllable and more violent phenomenon. The more you pick the wrong strategies, the more you create other predictable negative consequences.

So the problem will get worse. This fight is a fight against poor people’s desire for money. It is impossible to stop these people wanting money, it may be immoral to even want to stop them. All you can do is control the desire in the tried and tested ways we have already at our disposal. When you leave unaccountable people in charge of their own trade then problems occur. Imagine if banks regulated themselves, imagine if factories chose how much pollution they could emit or imagine if car makers did their own crash tests. What you would get is the cheapest option, regardless of human suffering. This is precisely what happens when you allow drug dealers and drug producers to control the drug trade.

Of course there are problems with people ingesting these substances but it has always been this way, always. Why we pick ineffective strategies that create extra problems to add to the already sizeable harms of addiction, family breakdown and anomie is a continuing source of mystification. If the pattern continues the way it has progressed throughout 51 years of international drug prohibition, the next drug that replaces methamphetamine will be even harder to fight and will have an even worse societal impact.

Michael Thomas

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