BANGKOK, Thailand — For Southeast Asian drug syndicates, meth is king.
Trading opium, the region’s former narcotic of choice, requires vast poppy fields that can be monitored by anti-drug agents from space. Coke — expensive, sourced an ocean away — only sells to a relatively small, well-off party crowd. Marijuana, Southeast Asia’s most-used illegal drug, is simply less profitable per kilo.
Methamphetamine, however, is cooked up in mobile, indoor labs. It’s craved by college students, white-collar workers and poor laborers alike. And at roughly $8-9 per tablet, a bundle of lavender or pink meth pills can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
The result? Methamphetamine consumption is soaring in Asia.
Just five years ago, well into the late 1990s explosion of methamphetamine use across the region, Southeast Asian authorities reported 14.6 meth pills seized. Last year, they nabbed 70 million pills, according to a new United Nations report. Meth-related arrests in the region have tripled in those years to 322,000, according the report, while meth lab busts have seen a five-fold increase.
Though a quadrupling in seizures may sound like good news, it likely reflects a skyrocketing volume in traffic, said Shawn Kelley, an analyst with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or UNODC.
True figures on the volume of meth cooked up and sold in Southeast Asia remain mysterious. Many of the surveillance techniques used to spy on growers of coca and poppy — namely top-of-the-line satellite imagery — are less effective in tracking meth producers. From space, a meth lab is indistinguishable from a dwelling or a garage.
“Unlike plant-based drugs such as opium or coca,” Kelley said, “with methamphetamine we can’t use satellite remote sensing or aerial photography to estimate the size of production.”
Compounding meth’s allure is the go-go pace of life in Southeast Asia’s rising economies.
Opium, the choice hard drug of decades past, offered addicts a dreamy, drawn-out death on a bamboo mat. Its heavy users were too unfit to work. But meth enables users to toil harder and longer. It's much more than a recreational drug for jumpy, jaw-grinding club kids. A dose turns long shifts in a taxi, a factory or even a cubicle into a far more tolerable experience.
“They’re associated with the party ‘til dawn crowd and manual laborers,” said Gary Lewis, the UNODC’s regional representative for East Asia and the Pacific. “Or people who work two shifts to pay for the mortgage, the house and sending the kids to school.”
The popularity of meth in Southeast Asia has been sped along by “profound socio-economic changes” and national opium eradication campaigns that “resulted in many opiate users shifting to methamphetamine,” according to the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, which closely monitors global drug trends.
Cooking and trafficking the drug also offers huge profits. One case study offered by the institute suggests that an investor could supply a factory, stocked with equipment and chemicals, along the unruly Thai-Myanmar border for $40,000.
That amount would include a payoff to the United Wa State Army, among the fractured nation’s most heavily armed militias. Such an investment could produce 100,000 meth pills with a $60,000 street value in about 24 hours, according to the institute. Repeat investments could rack up millions of dollars in short order.
Meth’s widespread availability has turned already-dark corners of Southeast Asia into zones awash in meth. Bangkok’s Klong Toei slums, long known as a shanty area supplying dock workers for the city’s busy ports, is now strongly associated with the meth trade.
The slum’s reputation has a way of following locals who hope to move on to better neighborhoods and jobs, said Wilailak Suwannasap, a 22-year-old who sells knock-off versions American clothing brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch on Klong Toei’s streets.
“It’s bad here. People outside think we’re all drug addicts. They think we all smoke crazy pills and drop out of school,” Wilailak said. “You see it everyday: drug addicts, people starting fights. They’re scum. I don’t go near them.”
Regionally known as “ya ba” — “crazy pills” in Thai — a meth tab can be consumed in a variety of ways, each offering a different degree of high. Crushed and mixed with water, the pill makes workers “industrious,” an experienced user told the Transnational Institute. A home-rigged water pipe ups the intensity. Snorting crushed up pills or smoking them — often by cooking them over tin foil and sucking smoke through a straw — only heightens the jittery rush and the risk of full-on addiction.
The reported side effects are notoriously nasty: anxiety, hard come-downs, depression and even delusions. In Thailand, which has coped with epidemic-caliber waves of meth use, TV news viewers have grown familiar with footage of strung-out men holding wives and children hostage at knifepoint in tense police standoffs. Even symbols of piety aren't immune: in 2012, the Thai press has reported multiple scandals involving Buddhist monks selling or using meth.
Compounding this plague is the ever-rising popularity of crystal meth or “ice,” a less common but more potent and expensive strain associated with a higher class of user. According to the United Nations report, arrests for ice possession have more than doubled in the past five years to 214,000 in Thailand and, in the same span of years in Indonesia, nearly doubled to more than 15,000 arrests.
The UNODC predicts that, as incomes rise across Southeast Asia, dealers will find a widening market for this turbo-charged breed of an already widespread narcotic. The expansion campaign, Kelley said, is already underway.
“Some dealers in Thailand,” he said, “are giving away crystal meth away free or cheaply to expand that market.”