Thailand's World-Class Antidrug Program

By Emery, James | The World and I, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Thailand's World-Class Antidrug Program


Emery, James, The World and I


"We used to grow opium," says Asoupa, a Lisu farmer in northwest Thailand, "but now we only grow cabbages and corn and other such crops. It's better. If we grow opium, we get in trouble and lose everything."

Thailand has one of the most effective drug control programs in the world, one that could serve as a global model for drug-producing hot spots, such as Colombia, Burma, Peru, and Mexico. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), in cooperation with the Royal Thai Army, have combined aggressive eradication and interdiction with flexible, alternative crop programs to encourage poverty-ridden tribespeople to abandon opium in favor of legal "cash" crops, such as cabbages, potatoes, kidney beans, mung beans, tomatoes, apples, peaches, strawberries, and arabica coffee.

Asoupa represents the country's erstwhile opium growers, the hill tribes of northwest Thailand--the Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Mein, and Hmong. Living in remote jungle villages, they practice slash-and-burn agriculture, planting rice, corn, tomatoes, onions, and other crops. Through long-term government programs, the cultivation of opium has been significantly reduced, and the production of morphine and heroin in Thailand has virtually ceased.

Thailand's official ban on opium cultivation began in 1959. Between 1960 and 1988, annual opium production continued to range from 15 to 60 tons. It took 30 years before yields began to decrease dramatically under the combined pressure of enforced eradication, enhanced alternative crop programs, and individual rewards.

The January 2003 crop marked the fourth successive year the opium harvest in Thailand was less than 2,470 acres. By comparison, opium cultivation in Burma has ranged from 247,000 to 419,900 acres during the last 10 years, an annual yield of up to 2,865 tons.

ERADICATION EFFORTS

The early alternative crop programs were plagued with problems, from insects to fluctuating market prices. The hill tribes couldn't compete with lowland farmers who got significantly better yields, and the lack of roads into tribal areas made it difficult to market the crops.

A major hurdle to alternative crops was convincing the hill tribes to grow something they knew nothing about, as well as guaranteeing a market for it and a set price. Opium, which is congealed poppy sap that is harvested from the plant's seedpods, is both difficult and time- consuming to produce, but it's familiar, and its price doesn't fluctuate as much as those of legal crops.

Authorities not only pushed alternative crops on the opium farmers but introduced an aggressive eradication campaign. "Aerial surveys provide information on the location of the fields for eradication purposes," says a Thai government official, who admits it is not a foolproof method. Determined poppy cultivators stagger plantings--in September, October, and November--and the elimination of an early opium crop may miss the two later crops. Additionally, some growers mix corn and other legal crops with their opium to conceal it. The poppy fields remaining in Thailand, however, are generally small, remote plots with minimal yields.

The combination of viable alternative crops, improved market access, and harsh penalties has encouraged most hill tribe villages to abandon opium. The alternative crop program in Thailand has been so successful that the United Nations and other organizations have been able to curtail direct support. Most village economies now revolve around legal crops and no longer need assistance.

Although Thailand still produces marijuana, primarily in the northeast, yields are declining due to aggressive police and military action, combined with increased production and cheaper prices out of Cambodia.

BURMA ACROSS THE BORDER

While Thailand was initiating its eradication program, Burma continued to produce over 2,755 metric tons of opium annually. …

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