Editor's note: This story was first published on July 22, 2014. GlobalPost is featuring it again as one of our must-reads of 2014.
KACHIN STATE, Myanmar — Deep inside Asia’s heroin heartland, drug labs are churning out unusual shades of the rapture-inducing opiate.
Powdered heroin’s color spectrum typically runs from white to beige. But some current batches out of Myanmar — a major global heroin supplier — could be confused with ground-up Pez.
There are canary yellows. Cotton-candy pinks. Pumpkin-colored doses that glow bright orange when drawn into a syringe. All of these odd-colored varieties are emerging from the wilds of Myanmar, formerly titled Burma.
Hills controlled by a patchwork of guerrilla armies in Myanmar provide a safe haven to farm poppies and produce most of Asia’s heroin supply. In these remote regions, getting high is as cheap as getting breakfast. The most heroin-ravaged areas sell “straws” — drinking straws stuffed with heroin — for just $1. A palm-sized glass jar filled with heroin can sell for as little as $25.
Addicts in Myanmar’s poppy-growing hinterlands have long enjoyed high-purity, low-cost heroin. But these days, they say, greater demand means prices are rising fast. And as heroin gets more expensive, dealers are diluting the drug with unknown chemicals that bring out pastel hues.
“The orange stuff is decent at first,” said one addict, a jade distributor in Myanmar’s Kachin State, which abuts the Chinese border. “But the feeling dies quickly.” Soon after his morning fix, in which he used orange heroin, he and a companion were already anxious about scoring again before sickness set in.
Bundles of heroin produced in Myanmar and confiscated by police in Thailand. (Royal Thai Police)
Myanmar’s poppy region — Shan State, famous for its noodles and opium alike — is ground zero for new mixtures of heroin. Some dealers now offer yellow and pink alongside old-school white, according to the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, which monitors global drug trends.
Like the fictional high-potency blue meth peddled in the TV series “Breaking Bad,” color can signify quality. Though this is typical of meth, which can be cooked up in a rainbow of colors, it’s unusual with heroin — a less synthetic drug derived from the extract of poppy bulbs and a few chemical adulterants.
Ex-addicts told GlobalPost that not all colors are created equally. Orange and yellow heroin, they said, is diluted with chemicals that create the colors, and less potent than pure whites and grays. However, the Transnational Institute reports one heroin type called “yellow stripe” that is “reportedly of higher quality and more concentrated.”
But Myanmar’s users also told institute researchers that their heroin’s overall purity is slipping. This compels addicts to double their daily intake from three to six injections.
“I was a total slave to heroin. Using all kinds and buying every day,” said Hkaw Zung, 30, a recovering addict in Kachin State. “I’ve seen orange. I’ve seen yellow. But nothing compares to Shan State grey. Once you try it, you’re never the same.”
This phenomenon is much more than just a drug culture curiosity.
Diluted heroin can lead to more overdoses and quicken the spread of disease. Shooting up more frequently, as users of stepped-on heroin are apt to do, ups the risk of users passing around infected needles.
Vast numbers of drug users in Asia are already afflicted with HIV, particularly in heroin-ravaged regions. In China’s city of Aksu, in Xinjiang province, more than half of those who inject drugs are HIV-positive, according to the United Nations. The same tragic figure holds true in Jakarta, Indonesia’s massive capital, and Cebu, a highly populated island in the Philippines. (Asia’s most popular hard drug, meth, is also injectable.)
Heroin smuggled out of Myanmar travels far and wide. Myanmar’s semi-lawless northeast borderlands produce almost all of Asia’s heroin. (Only Afghanistan churns out more.) Predictably, Myanmar’s pastel-colored varieties have turned up throughout the region.
Bundles of lemon-yellow heroin have been intercepted by police in Thailand. Colored heroin has also emerged in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation 1,000 miles away. “They are not bold colors but very mild,” said a senior staffer at a Malaysian drug recovery network. “Mild grey, mild pink and mild yellow.”
An addict holds a syringe filled with orange-colored heroin mixed with saline. (Jonah M. Kessel/GlobalPost)
The exact recipe for yellow or pink heroin is a mystery to narcotics experts. Myanmar’s police are likewise clueless, according to a former high-ranking anti-narcotics officer in Myanmar. He told GlobalPost that Myanmar’s anti-narcotics squads have “nil research department” when it comes to identifying the latest chemicals used in jungle drug labs.
“We only know that it’s lower quality,” said Maji La Wawm, 48, a Kachin State drug researcher writing a dissertation for Kansas State University.
“In our youth, we saw only white powder. Now, you’ll see yellow and other colors,” said Maji La Wawm, who began investigating the heroin epidemic in his home region after his brother died from an overdose.
“The demand is exceeding the supply,” he said. “So they step on it with all sorts of chemicals. The color is a byproduct.”
That demand is driven in large part by China, where rising incomes mean more cash available for drugs.
The narco-syndicates that operate in the Myanmar borderlands have tried their best to keep up with China’s appetite. Myanmar’s opium production has risen steadily for the last eight years — all in defiance of the central government’s absurd vows to chop down every last poppy stalk before the decade ends.
Myanmar is now emerging from five decades of totalitarian rule and has yet to fully tame its many insurgencies waged by ethnic militias in the borderlands. Authorities in Myanmar hope to revive the economy and forge peace with the nation’s far-flung armed militias, which often rely on an underground economy of smuggling and drugs.
That means keeping them happy. Some militias that ally with the central military — according to the Transnational Institute — are permitted to “trade in opium and heroin virtually undisturbed.”
A typically white-colored dose of heroin sold in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Courtesy of the Malaysia AIDS Council)
Yet all of this heroin production is still struggling to satiate China’s demand. When supply can’t keep up, heroin prices rise — and they’ve tripled in parts of Myanmar. This appears to be the reason why some dealers are thinning out their supply with adulterants, which creates strangely colored heroin batches.
Despite the vast reach of Myanmar’s heroin, pastel-colored powder is unlikely to hit US streets.
America’s west coast market is dominated by black tar heroin, a putty-like substance produced largely in Latin America. America’s east coast prefers the snort-ready powdered heroin that users worldwide call “Number Four.” This is the type of heroin produced in Myanmar and commonly sold in Asia. But America’s east coast markets are typically supplied by different syndicates that rely on poppy grown in Afghanistan.
American heroin users aren’t missing much. Colored heroin, according to hardcore users in Myanmar, is mostly useful for fighting off the agony of withdrawal.
“I no longer feel euphoria from this stuff,” said the jade distributor who’d injected orange heroin. “It’s just a daily routine to stop the sickness.”