New Life for Asia’s Golden Triangle

By Dirk Hanson 06/03/11

Southeast Asia’s historical heroin hotspot has become a major center for meth production.

Now it's meth.
Photo via irrawaddy

It was known as the Golden Triangle—the mountainous and rugged region of Northern Laos, together with Thailand and Burma. For decades, it was the place where half the world’s supply of opium was trans-shipped to other countries around the world. Starting with the Viet Nam War, the Golden Triangle was the money spot, the honey hole in the jungle where all that heroin got its start. Nowadays, with heavy competition from other countries, including Afghanistan and Columbia, things have changed—but not necessarily the way one might think.  While the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime documents an 80% decline in opium production since 1990, CNN’s Andrew Marshall reported this week that the Golden Triangle didn’t die. “It did what any good business does in our globalized age: expand its markets and diversify its product range.” The gold produced there doesn’t come in the form of poppies anymore. The new gold rush in the Golden Triangle came in the form of methamphetamine, starting about ten years ago. Since then, a huge new market for Yaba, meaning “crazy medicine,” has bloomed among Asian young people. “Opium, the thinking goes, is for old people and ‘backward’ hill tribes,” writes Marshall, “while heroin is for losers; but methamphetamine has a social acceptance, particularly among young Asians, that rightly terrifies governments.”

As it turns out, meth has several advantages over the traditional cash crop of opium. Unlike poppies, meth doesn’t grow in fields detectable from the air. It doesn’t, in fact, grow anywhere at all, and the labs where it is clandestinely produced can be dismantled and scattered throughout the rugged terrain in a matter of hours. Police in Thailand, Laos, and Burma seem clueless in the face of the sheer size of the meth business at present. In Thailand, police nabbed 27 million meth pills in 2009, compared with 40 million tabs a year later. And to make matters worse, there has been a recent uptick in the opium trade in the area as well. “Seize 2 million tablets today and the traffickers will make another 10 million tomorrow,” a senior officer with the Royal Thai Police told CNN. “The job is endless.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
dirk hanson.jpg

Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]