Laos battles new foe in war on drugs
Vientiane (Reuters) - Poverty-stricken Laos has some way to go to catch up with its more developed neighbors, but it has still managed to import the same problems facing far richer countries.
Fresh from declaring victory in its "war on opium," Laos' communist rulers now face the threat of growing methamphetamine use among its youth.
The unceremoniously named "Treatment and Vocational Training of Drug Users Center," just south of the capital, Vientiane, is a case in point.
Here, at Laos's biggest drug rehabilitation center, 565 Lao have come from all over the country. Almost all are addicted to methamphetamines.
Malee, 15, looks like a typical teenager in red Mickey Mouse T-shirt and ponytail. But she has been arrested twice, both times for smoking speed she bought with money stolen from her parents.
"The minute I got any money, I would run out and spend it on drugs," she said, estimating she blew the equivalent of $100 a week on drugs in a country where three-quarters of people live on less than $2 a day.
"I tried everything I could, even heroin. My friends would bring me these drugs and all our worries would be gone. All I ever wanted to do was get out of the life I had."
Methamphetamines represent part of a growing trend in Laos, the next scourge to test the government's "drug-free" resolve at a time when it could easily slide back into more opium use, says the United Nations.
"Prevention and control of trafficking and abuse of heroin and methamphetamines are some of the next challenges that face the government. Laos is at a critical juncture," said Leik Boonwaat of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"Without urgent appropriate assistance the successes already achieved could be easily reversed. Increased, trafficking of heroin and methamphetamine will lead to increased crime, corruption, violence, misery and poverty," he said.
OLD MAN'S DRUG
Unlike opium, which urban Lao see as an "old man's drug," methamphetamines -- which cost around $1.50 a tablet -- have found favor with youngsters who want to be alert, confident and slim.
First emerging in the mid-1990s, methamphetamines are also a harder drug to fight off than opium, which often leaves users listless after an initial rush of euphoria, said center director Ugaow Gaowarawong.
"Methamphetamines are much more scary," he said. "It messes with your head and it's hard to shake. Opium is mainly for minority groups and old people. It's not for the young people who want to go out."
Once the world's third biggest producer of heroin -- derived from the resin of opium poppies -- Laos declared itself free of poppy cultivation in February 2006.
It was able to accomplish this through a battery of measures including agreements with farmers who pledged to stop growing poppies or risk seeing their fields destroyed.
"It's a carrot-and-stick approach," said one aid official who asked not to be identified. "But we don't have enough carrot, we have a lot of stick."
The measures appear to be working -- and with little of the trauma that came with Thailand's "war on drugs," which resulted in the extrajudicial deaths of more than 2,500 people.
Now, 1,800 hectares of land are used to cultivate poppies, down from 6,600 hectares a year earlier and 26,800 hectares in 1998, according to the UNODC.
The average price of opium has risen 139 percent to $521 a kg from the same period a year ago, reflecting its scarcity, the UNODC said.
Former users have mostly resigned themselves to going elsewhere for relief.
"I used to use it when I had aches and pains," said Sio Diah, 70, sewing sequins on a piece of embroidery at a Hmong village north of Vientiane. "I don't use it anymore, of course. I go to the drug store instead."
NEW SUCCESS STORY?
Still, the lack of a sustainable livelihood for farmers could induce as many as half of the former opium producers to return to planting poppies, the UNODC's Leik said.
Methamphetamine use could also grow as traffickers move beyond youngsters to other sections of the population in both urban and rural areas, he said.
However, drug rehabilitation officials are optimistic the success in tackling opium will be duplicated against methamphetamines, pointing out that the country's poverty may actually end up saving it.
"In the past two years, we had 700-800 people here, most addicted to methamphetamines," said center director Ugaow. "Now we have around 500 so far this year, much less. It's expensive and hard to find. That is helpful."
By Chawadee Nualkhair