Thai opium cultivation down 40 percent

Having already drastically reduced opium production in the Kingdom, Thai officials said last week that production fell by 40 percent last year in the few northern districts where it persists, a result of stricter law enforcement, while the Kingdom’s effective ban on the sale of precursor chemicals had forced drug lords in neighboring countries to alter their formulas for producing narcotics.

Thailand was once one of the world’s leading producers of opium, the raw material for heroin. The area of northern Thailand where opium growing was rife is part of the Golden Triangle, a region encompassing parts of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Opium was grown for centuries as a traditional and medicinal crop mostly by hill tribe people. Later it became a source of revenue for insurgent groups in neighboring countries and production exploded.

But in the 1970s, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej introduced crop substitution programs among the hill tribe people in Thailand. Opium growing declined dramatically and Thailand is no longer a significant producer or illicit exporter of opium or heroin.

Nonetheless, some hill people still grow opium. While the crop is mainly for their own consumption, some does end up in the hands of drug traffickers, and so the Thai authorities are still working to eliminate the crop.

Sirinya Sitdhichai, Secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), said opium is still being grown in remote districts in the mountains of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Tak provinces. All border neighboring Myanmar. He said it is mostly grown by individual farmers for their own consumption, but some is grown by “investor-backed” farmers for “local distribution.”

The plantations are small, scattered and hidden to avoid detection by the authorities. The government conducts aerial surveys, however, to locate them. What the latest surveys found was that opium plots had dropped by 40 percent in the last year.

He credited tougher enforcement and also climate change for the reduction.

Thailand’s tougher enforcement concerning its ban on production, import, sale or distribution of precursor chemicals used to manufacture narcotics, especially methamphetamines, has also proven to be effective. The ONCB said it had received intelligence that foreign drug syndicates operating in neighboring countries had developed alternative formulas to produce methamphetamines because the Thai crackdown had dried up their supplies of precursor chemicals.

“So the drug-making capacity from the area is still high. When we seized 10 million meth pills, they increased the production capacity to 20 million or 30 million,” Sirinya said.