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Myanmar’s Drug Problem Gets Worse as Its Politics Get Better

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 27, 2012

Soldiers use sticks to destroy poppy fields above the village of Ho Hwayt, in the mountains of Shan State, Myanmar. Soldiers use sticks to destroy poppy fields above the village of Ho Hwayt, in the mountains of Shan State, Myanmar (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters).

An interesting recent piece by Agence France Presse, from a major drug production area of Myanmar, comes timed with the visits to the United States by Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar president Thein Sein. The article points out one of many challenges that are going to remain in Myanmar, if not get worse, once the euphoria over the dramatic reforms of the past two years ebbs a bit. In this case, the problem is surging narcotics production and use, which (when it comes to injectable drugs) is also linked to rising rates of HIV/AIDS. The reporter notes that the country is facing skyrocketing rates of methamphetamine production, which is harder to track and stop than opium/heroin, and that addiction rates are rising as well, in part because of a near-total lack of social-welfare spending on addicts in areas like the northwest. The local authorities have little money for methadone or other treatment options, and the fastest-growing group of users is under eighteen years old. The United Nations last year showed that methamphetamine use has gone up every year in Myanmar since 2005, according to the AFP report.

As Myanmar’s politics open up, it is likely that the drug problem is only going to get worse. In a period of a power vacuum, organized crime will flourish —particularly in the northwest, the major drug production area. And in a country with such vast needs, and a wildly overstretched budget, it is likely that treating addiction will fall to the bottom of priorities, as it often does even in developed countries.

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