When there aren't enough hours in the day: Thailand's speedy epidemic

Peering down from the cabin of his eight-ton lorry, red-eyed and lean, Khun Cham Be steadies his hands enough to light another menthol cigarette. Ahead is another long night on the road carrying timber across Thailand, an unbearable ordeal of endurance, he says, were it not for his tablets of yaa baa, amphetamine.

"The longer I can stay awake, the longer I can drive, and the more I can earn," he says. "I don't think I could do this job without my tablets."For hundreds of thousands of other low-paid, overworked Thais, amphetamines are seen as an easy way to boost personal earning power in a nation obsessed with materialism.

Known as yaa baa (mad medicine), amphetamine tablets are bought by the Thai poor as a means, not of recreation as in Europe and America, but of boosting energy to work harder and longer. Typically, it is taxi drivers, long-distance truckers, and factory workers, all paid by the hour, who are dependent on yaa baa. The more they swallow, the more they earn.

"There is a definite link in this part of Asia between amphetamine use and economic development," says Richard Dickens of the United Nations' International Drug Control Programme in Bangkok.

"We have watched amphetamines and other stimulants surge in popularity in virtually all of the dynamic 'tiger' economies of east Asia, starting with Japan after the Second World War, through South Korea a decade ago," he added. Thailand's problem with stimulant abuse, now reaching epidemic proportions, according to the UN, first came to the notice of the authorities in the early 1990s: at the height, in other words, of the country's boom years.

"This is a regional problem. We are increasingly concerned about the spread of amphetamines into China as well. With the Chinese economy now expanding so rapidly, and the pressure that is putting on working Chinese, there is potential for explosive growth," warns Mr Dickens. That possibility has not escaped the region's drug producers, aware that in the long term, amphetamine production offers more secure, and even bigger profits that the area's traditional drug product - opium.

Deep in the jungles of the notorious Golden Triangle region of Thailand, Burma and Laos, new factory-laboratories are springing up, mass-producing amphetamines to meet a seemingly inexorable rise in demand.

Anti-narcotics police say the producers are headed by the same secretive and heavily-armed drug barons who monopolise opium growing and heroin production in the area. Their intelligence reports even suggest a complete change of production in some areas from opium to amphetamines.

In many ways, manufacturing amphetamine tablets is much easier than heroin production, which requires large quantities of raw opium.

Amphetamine tablets can be produced in their millions, with relatively small amounts of either synthetic or naturally occurring ingredients mixed in small, highly-mobile laboratories less vulnerable to detection than the vast poppy fields that encumber the opium producer.

The other crucial factor is that, whereas heroin's overseas market requires complex international trafficking networks, stimulants like yaa baa are sold and consumed by locals, or, at least, by people a short truck or boat ride away. That, say police, means producers get an almost instant profit on their drugs. Tablets which cost as little as 6p to manufacture can fetch up to pounds 3 on the streets of Bangkok.

At night, "long-tailed" speedboats thunder along the city's klongs, a complex network of dark, narrow and polluted canals which connect disparate city districts, delivering literally boat-loads of tablets to freelance dealers who each buy small amounts to sell at taxi ranks, petrol stations, even Buddhist temples.

But there is also a new and growing market for yaa baa: schoolchildren. Under increasing pressure to perform at schools from parents and teachers, children as young as 10 are becoming dependent on the drug as a means of staying awake to study harder and longer. "It started as an experiment, to do what my friends were doing" says Chiraporn, a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Her three-year amphetamine habit was discovered by her father after she complained of anxiety attacks, nightmares and sickness. An investigation revealed that 40 per cent of her classmates were regular yaa baa users.

This rapid penetration of amphetamines into the respectable world of the Thai middle classes has jolted the authorities into tackling a drug traditionally confined to the country's impoverished.

Posters warning of the dangers of dependency have been stuck on walls and lamp posts, and police have been targeting peddlers. But despite more than 50,000 arrests last year, demand for yaa baa is growing. And the country once notorious for its number of heroin and opium addicts now has more than 300,000 amphetamine users, according to official figures - more than any other nation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links