Drugged Out

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Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME

Taking action A raid on suspected meth dealers and users in Thailand's Pattaya city

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Despite the sharp increase in opium-poppy cultivation, Pasquarello says that booming methamphetamine production remains the DEA's first priority in Southeast Asia. "It's not just methamphetamine," he says. "We're also gearing up for a tremendous increase of South America cocaine coming into the region." Two or three years ago, says Pasquarello, a seizure of 20 kg of cocaine in Asia would be considered huge. In 2009, after coming under the scrutiny of the U.S. Coast Guard, the crew of a Chinese fishing boat bound for Hong Kong threw overboard a multimillion-dollar cargo: about 2 metric tons of South American cocaine.

Experts disagree on whether sharp increases in seizures are a sign of better law enforcement. "If the total volume of seized goods is increasing, more product is coming out," says the UNODC's Lewis. And while tens of millions of pills are impounded, the factories that produce them go largely undetected. Authorities in Burma seized almost 24 million methamphetamine pills in 2009, yet only discovered 39 manufacturing facilities — in the past decade.

Pasquarello is more upbeat. "We've been much more effective with our enforcement," he says. "The bigger seizures are a sign of better intelligence, better coordination, and better knowledge of what the traffickers are doing." He also praises Thailand and the DEA's other partner nations for "basically dismantling the Golden Triangle. Sure, there are ups and downs, there are different spikes in activity. But it's nowhere near where it was in its heyday." Suchai of Thailand's NSB, which works closely with the DEA, remains gloomy. "Even though we're pushing forward we're falling behind," he says. "We're seizing smaller amounts of yaba, but we're seizing them more frequently. Sometimes the drug is transported in powder form and made into tablets here. The patterns keep changing."

Losing the Fight
In 1998 the U.N. General Assembly held a special session on narcotics under the slogan "A drug-free world — We can do it!" It was later dropped. "I don't believe that degree of utopia is obtainable," says Lewis. "What we're trying to do is minimize the risk of expansion [of the drug trade]."

So why are politicians still vowing that the 10 countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Laos, Burma and Thailand, will be drug-free by 2015? "They probably know it won't happen, but that's the message they want to convey to their populations," says Tom Blickman of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. People are sick of drug dealers and the havoc they wreak on families and communities. They want a quick fix, and politicians are always happy to promise them one.

Such unrealistic goals lead to repressive and usually counterproductive measures against drug users, who are often jailed rather than treated — just look at any of Asia's desperately overcrowded prisons. "Bringing demand down by repression has been tried for a couple of decades now," says Blickman. "It doesn't work."

Nor do drug-treatment facilities in many Asia-Pacific countries, which are underfunded and — although overwhelmed by increasing numbers of methamphetamine users — geared toward heroin and opium addicts. In Asia, most drug users are sent for compulsory treatment at military-style boot camps. Some are hellholes. Detainees at Cambodian facilities are subjected to torture and forced labor, said Human Rights Watch in 2010. The New York City — based group also found "inhumane treatment" at similar centers in China, where half a million users are confined at any given time, according to the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS.

These boot camps are not just inhumane, but also ineffective. A 2009 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) put the relapse rates at compulsory treatment centers in China, Malaysia and Vietnam at between 60% and 95%. In Cambodia, the relapse rate was 100%.

The alternative? Focus on mitigating the health, social and economic impacts of narcotics with harm-reduction policies — for example, psychological counseling for methamphetamine addicts or needle-exchange programs for drug users in order to prevent the transmission of blood-borne diseases like HIV. Proponents, who include WHO and the UNODC, acknowledge that societies will always have drugs and drug users, something politicians are reluctant to publicly admit. Dependence is not a crime but a chronic illness, they argue. Harm reduction is safe and cost-effective — treating users is cheaper than jailing them — and based on evidence rather than wishful thinking.

And the main beneficiaries of this failure to properly address Asia's demand for drugs? The drug lords of the Golden Triangle. At the tiny tourist village of Sop Ruak, there are not one but two museums celebrating the eradication of opium in Thailand. One is a multimillion-dollar structure built into a nearby hillside. At the other — an old two-story building with displays of pipes, pillows and other opium-smoking paraphernalia — I ask the woman selling entrance tickets if Thailand will ever build a museum to celebrate the eradication of yaba. She chuckles and replies: "That's a good one."

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