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A-Z of Drugs


Y is for Yaba

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

Y is for Yaba

Thailand markets itself as the ‘Land of smiles’, the happy go-lucky, laid back vibe that the country likes to promote is perhaps most apparent in the sleepy northern Thai city of Chang-Mai. The outward calm however belies the presence of a major drug trade in ‘Yaba’, otherwise known as the madness drug or Nazi speed.

Chang-Mai was perfectly situated to act as the main distribution hub as it lies close to the Myanmar (formerly Burma) border where the drug is usually produced and has good transport links to the rest of the country and beyond. As the use of the drug has grown from its first appearance about 20 years ago, it is now estimated that there are over 30 million users in Southeast Asia. Yaba (The ‘ba’ bit means ‘insane’ in the Thai language) is also known as “Shabu” in Japan and Indonesia, “Bingdu” in China and “Batu” in the Philippines.

Despite tough penalties of up to 10 years for personal use and lifetime sentences or the death penalty for dealers who are possession of over 20 grams, availability and prevalence figures remain high. Possession 20 grams or more alone means that the person is deemed to be a dealer with an intent to sell.

Illegal drugs have always moved easily between countries such as Burma, China, Thailand and Laos. It’s the area of the ‘golden triangle’ where opium production was rife for centuries and the mountainous terrain made smuggling hard to counter. Myanmar remains the world’s second largest producer of heroin, but methamphetamine has gradually become the more lucrative product to produce. Some commentators put a good deal of the blame for this development at the feet of Burmese government who signed ceasefire agreements with militant ethnic minority groups. Although not part of any official agreement, it is widely thought that as part of the concessions they agreed to turn a ‘blind eye’ that allowed such groups to continue with non-heroin drug production largely undisturbed.

However in 2020 a Reuters report detailed what was dubbed “Asia’s biggest ever drug bust”. It led to the seizure of 193 million Yaba tablets (almost twice all that was seized in the country in the previous two years) which weighed in at some 17.5 tonnes. It also confirmed that Asia’s drug syndicates had moved into the lucrative synthetic opioid market as 3,700 litres of methylfentanyl were also discovered by the anti-narcotics police near Loikan village in Shan State, Myanmar.

With hundreds of laboratories strung out along the borders with Thailand and China it’s not surprising that Myanmar’s drug traffickers are considered some of the largest and most heavily armed criminal enterprises in the world.

Yaba is a combination of a number of stimulants. The two main substances that make up the drug are caffeine and methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth. Yaba when taken in tablet form is usually red in colour and often imprinted with the letters ‘WY’. It can be taken orally but also crushed and then snorted. More commonly it is smoked off a piece of tinfoil when added flavourings such as vanilla can give a certain aroma to the backstreets of cities such as Chang Mai.

The ratio of methamphetamine to caffeine or any other substance will vary considerably but is usually around the 20% mark. Being sold in the price range of 250-400 bhat (6-12 US Dollars) they are one of the cheapest drugs available on the streets. The fact that the drug is both cheap and readily available has produced an epidemic that affects individuals of all socio-economic classes.

In Thailand the use of yaba is viewed as a national crisis that has created a society of users leading to detrimental and long-term effects on the country. Higher crime rates, a rise in violence, and an increase in HIV infection rates are just some of the repercussions that get highlighted.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy presented its annual drug report in Thailand in April 2017. The council has since chosen the country to be the testbed for a number of new initiatives, with the hope of lowering the number of drug users. The new policies may in time decriminalise certain drugs (but not Yaba) and also bring an end to capital punishment for cases relating to drugs. Other policies include finding alternatives to imprisonment and making rehabilitation centres accessible to everyone.

Rehabilitation facilities, especially around the Chang Mai area have become a growth industry. Some of the upmarket centres would offer an experience surpassing most five-star hotels. Few, if any of Ireland’s rehabilitation centres (or indeed five-star resorts) offer elephant rides, cooking classes and white water rafting. Costing up to $15,000 a month such exclusive hide-a-ways may still be seen as cost-effective compared to centres based in North America. Concerns exist that clients find themselves in an environment that is so removed from their everyday lives that re-adjustment to the home context is more difficult to manage and may contribute towards a greater chance of the client relapsing. Few local users gain access to such facilities.

At the other end of the spectrum other centres offer a decidedly more spartan experience. Some apply to centres on a voluntary basis, whilst others are mandated by the state. One of most famous is the Wat Thamkrabok buddhist monastery. Its services are free apart from a $5 dollar a charge for food and the request for a donation on leaving. In some ways not dissimilar to reality shows such as I’m a celebrity, get me out of here, new arrivals are expected to leave their old life behind. Reading materials, a disposal camera and a pair of long socks to guard against mosquitos are permitted, but that’s about it. Armed only with a sleeping mat and a blanket the first five days are spent solely in a dormitory with about 30 other people. Later, singing, chanting, mindfulness exercises, intense herbal saunas and chores may fill the day from a 5AM start. Unlike most western centres a person’s individual spiritual and emotional needs are put firmly into the background. Many complete the seven day programme and leave, others stay on for days or weeks with the permission of the abbot.

Another key cultural difference is the use of a ‘vomiting therapy’ to purge the body (allegedly) of toxins. Every afternoon the substance (whose composition is as closely guarded as any Col. Sanders recipe) is administered alongside infused tea to encourage vomiting for an extended period. Some of the 100,000+ people who have been through the Thamkrabot regime may argue that process seems to “wake the body up from the nightmare of addiction.”

Although it is arguable how much of this approach fits with the principles of Buddhist thought, it is clear that the approach stands in clear opposition to the ‘addiction is a disease’ approach adopted by many centres. It’s not an approach that is recommended for those drugs that focus on the central nervous system such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or heroin due to it forcing a person to go ‘cold turkey’ without and substitution drugs being used. Others claim that its alternative methods were the only effective treatment that they had come across after many rounds of attempted rehabilitation in the west.

Attempts to reduce the Yaba use among the young in northern Thailand continue. It’s something of an uphill struggle as a report in the International Journal of drug policy highlighted in 2014. The researchers noted their survey group of over 200 young people who lived in the Chang Mai area had a largely positive image of yaba, seeing it as a modern consumer commodity. As yaba could provide stimulation for several hours it was largely seen in the past as a drug that made labourers more productive. As Thai society evolved into a modern diversified economy more young people began to consume the drug more for the pleasure it brought and its performance in fields other than farmed ones. Several also saw the pills as part of modern (western) medicine in which they had a good deal of faith. In that sense taking yaba begins to be seen less as a rebellion against older dominant culture and more about the demands of keeping up with the demands and expectations of a modern capitalist society.

X is for Xanex
Z is for Zoomer and Zulu