Opium's crazy cousin

Sun Feb 19, 2012 7:53pm EST

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Feb 20 (Reuters) - Most people in Thailand's drug rehabilitation centres are there for using it. Most drug arrests in Japan are related to it. And Vietnam, the United Nations says, is its "next big market."

Methamphetamine is now the top drug in many Asian countries, its soaring popularity straddling social and economic divides. It is widely known in pill form by its Thai name ya ba ("crazy medicine") and in its purer crystalline form as ice or shabu. It is relatively cheap, highly addictive and -- because its main source is former poppy-growing areas of Shan State -- another daunting front in Myanmar's war on drugs.

The number of ya ba pills seized in Southeast Asia quadrupled from 32 million in 2008 to 133 million in 2010, and that is only a fraction of what's being produced, says the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Myanmar's record is patchy -- only 2 million pills were seized there in 2010 -- but officials blame China, India and Thailand for supplying the drug's main ingredients: ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Most pills are made in semi-autonomous areas such as Special Region 2, a once opium-rich region bordering China. It is controlled by a well-armed ethnic ceasefire group called the United Wa State Army, which has been described by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as "the leading heroin and methamphetamine trafficking organization in Southeast Asia."

Most of Myanmar's methamphetamine is trafficked to other Asian countries. But with a growing domestic market, its popularity in Myanmar might already have eclipsed opium and heroin, says the UNODC.

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