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China's Addicts Drive Southeast Asian Opium Boom

Opium production in the region has doubled in six years, despite eradication efforts.


In Myanmar, opium production rises despite
government crackdowns. Photo via

By May Wilkerson


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Despite government efforts to eradicate the crop, opium cultivation in Southeast Asia has more than doubled over the past six years, according to a report released today by the UN. This steep increase is largely driven by rising demand for heroin across Asia—especially in China, where the number of users is estimated to have climbed to 2.5 million, accounting for over 70% of all heroin users in East Asia and the Pacific. A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry says the country has participated in regional and global counternarcotics initiatives and "made great efforts in preventive education and the prohibition of drugs and drug rehabilitation." Still, drugs continue to pour in to the country, most of them from the "Golden Triangle"—an area right below China, where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar converge.

Since 2006, the report shows, annual poppy cultivation has been rising steadily in the Golden Triangle, which is one of the world's primary opium-producing regions—second only to the "Golden Crescent" across Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. In Laos, the amount of farmland used for growing opium nearly tripled in 2011; in Myanmar it rose 17%, despite the government's recent aggressive efforts to eradicate opium production. Opium yields about 15 times more cash than other crops, making it an attractive livelihood for many farmers—and the crops are often controlled by insurgents and traffickers, making it difficult for the government to intervene. "Because it threatens both the livelihoods of desperately poor people as well as income for armed groups, the act of eradication involves a lot of risk," explains Gary Lewis, the representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's East Asia and Pacific division. "We must engage with the farming communities and persuade them—with alternative development —to stop growing poppy." 

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