An upsurge in drug trafficking in Laos is fuelling the potential for drug abuse among the youth, the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision (LCDC) warns.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Country Representative to Laos, Leik Boonwaat, told IRIN the Lao People's Republic was facing "an unprecedented increase in trafficking of methamphetamine", with rising use of the highly addictive drug.

Methamphetamine seizures in the country soared from one million tablets in 2008 to more than 24 million in 2010, according to UNODC. The agency's June 2011 World Drugs Report said 95 percent of those seeking drug treatment in Laos in 2009 had methamphetamine problems.

Phanthavy Bounmany was 17 when he first used methamphetamine, known as yabaa, or "crazy drug" in Lao and Thai. "I got addicted, but not seriously at first. I would use it once every couple of weeks," he said. "But it became much more serious over time."

Phanthavy broke his habit through repeated stays at Somsanga Treatment Centre on the outskirts of the Lao capital, Vientiane, where he now works to help other addicts.

"I was brought [to Somsanga] by my family. Many people helped me, and I decided that I had to fight the drug with them," he said.

Somsanga is the largest of Laos' eight drug treatment centres, and registered 600 new patients in the first six months of 2011, against 300 over the same period in 2010 according to UNODC.

"The number of young Lao [yabaa] users is increasing because of social pressures. If people use yabaa in the area where you stay, they will pressure you to use it, and then you will pressure your friends," said Phanthavy.

Of Somsanga's 1,300 residents, just 40 are female, pointing to an acute vulnerability among young men to exposure and addiction to drugs. "Yabaa is more than 80 percent a problem for male youth," said Phanthavy.

Flooded market

Yabaa's low price in Laos, US$4 to $6 per tablet, or less if bought in bulk or from a regular dealer, and ready availability because of large-scale trafficking, are also contributing to rising use.

Although there is no evidence of domestic manufacturing of yabaa, Laos's proximity to known production centres in neighbouring countries, particularly Myanmar, coupled with a lack of law enforcement resources and 5,000km of borders, have made the land-locked country a conveyor belt for moving the drug to other large Asian markets, such as Thailand, Vietnam and China.

"Any law enforcement officer will tell you that each seizure represents only one-tenth of the total illicit goods that are being trafficked. We estimate that the total street value of drugs seized [in Laos] since 2010 could be as high as $100 million," UNODC's Leik told IRIN.

"Social evil"

On 24 June the Lao government marked International Day Against Drugs by burning about a ton of seized drugs in Vientiane, including 1.2 million yabaa tablets, and launched a national drug prevention campaign fronted by local celebrities.

LCDC Chairman Soubanh Srithirath said at the event that "Laos seems to bear the brunt [of trafficking], as most production occurs outside our borders", adding that the Lao government was "seriously committed to fighting this social evil".

Leik pointed out that the trade in yabaa differed fundamentally from the country's battle with opium in that youth were targeted, and more than 50 percent of the Lao population is under 20 years of age, many of whom lack employment and education opportunities.


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World - 'Unprecedented' Drug Trafficking Heightens Risk To Youth