In northeastern Shan State, opium farmers have a special welcome for visitors.
“Serving opium or methamphetamines to guests is a tradition of local poppy farmers in the area. Some poppy farmers are drug addicts,” said Yarzar*, a drug addict in his 30s from Shan State, where he used to farm poppy and work in opium factories.
Myanmar is one of the world’s main sources of opiates and methamphetamines, and this production fuels rampant addiction in the country.
Opiates, especially heroin, are the most prevalent drug in Myanmar, feeding the habits of some 66,000 heroin users and 67,000 opium users, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2010 World Drug Report released this week.
In 2009, the country produced 330 tons of opiates, accounting for 17 percent of global cultivation, while methamphetamine seizures skyrocketed from one million tablets in 2008 to 23 million in 2009.
In the border areas of Shan and Kachin states, the region where most of the opium is produced, about 1.5 percent of the adult population is addicted.
“There are as many drug stalls in the border areas as there are betel shops or teashops in the cities,” Yarzar said in Yangon.
The primary drug of choice is heroin, followed by opium and methamphetamine, the UNODC said. Methamphetamine use increased for six years up to 2008, while heroin use has dipped, and opium has remained stable. Methamphetamine use is hard to gauge, but may be reflected in the number of seizures.
“There are clear indications of the increase in the seizures and production of ATS [amphetamine-type stimulants],” said Deepika Naruka, who coordinates UNODC’s programmes in Myanmar and East Asia.
She said figures on drug use are hard to come by because of the stigma and illegality, but “even with the limited data that is available there is an indication that ATS use is problematic”.
However, a Myanmar physician working with drug addicts in the country sees a clear trend.
“Drug users in the area of North Shan, South Shan and Mandalay are still on the rise,” said Myo Nyunt Aung, who works on the harm reduction programme of the UN and Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association (MANA).
Cheap, easy to find
Opium production in Myanmar has decreased dramatically since the mid-90s - when about 1,700 tons of opium was produced annually. In 2009, UNODC estimated 330 tons was produced.
The agency says 95 percent of Myanmar’s opium is grown in Shan State. In that region, the prevalence rate of adult daily opium use is higher in opium-growing villages - 1.7 percent, compared to 0.5 percent in non-growing villages.
Drugs are widely available along the China-Myanmar border, like in the city of Lashio.
“In Lashio, we can buy one dose of heroin [with a penicillin bottle] for US$8-12. The price of the drug is three times cheaper than buying in a big city like Mandalay,” Yarzar said. “The closer you get to the border areas, the cheaper the drugs are and the stronger the taste.”
In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, north of Yangon, there is a steady drug supply for, and demand from, migrants from different parts of the country.
“It is not difficult to get heroin in Mandalay if you have money,” said 36-year-old Min Thura, a former drug addict from Mandalay who is now working with the National Drug User Network Myanmar (NDNM).
Many drug addicts are migrant labourers toiling in jade mines or along the China-Myanmar border, but also people from wealthy families in Mandalay, he said.
In the 1990s, Min Thura regularly shared needles with other drug users in Mandalay.
“About 50 drug users were queuing up and giving their arms to inject heroin with only one needle. Many of my friends with whom I shared needles to inject drugs have already died,” said Min Thura, who has been clean for four years.
Now, he said, there is more awareness about HIV and clean needles.
Myanmar’s first methadone therapy programme was established in March 2006, set up in drug treatment centres in several cities and towns across the country.
There is only one methadone clinic in Yangon, at the San Pya Hospital, and patients make daily appointments for treatment.
“It’s not easy for the drug users living on the outskirts of Yangon to go to the hospital every day to take methadone. It would be better if there were more drug treatment centres,” said Bae Lay, a member of NDNM.
Htoo Wint Kyaw, another NDNM member, agreed: “There are many drug users who would quit using drugs if treatment were available.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.
Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.
We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.
Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian.