Methamphetamine, commonly known as “yaba,” has over the last decade taken a hold on our society as it went from a trendy, synthetic drug for the elite to mass consumption. Today, yaba hauls by authorities run into millions of tablets a year, but it is a losing battle.
It made its appearance in 2010 and 81,000 tablets were seized that year. In 2016, that number had risen to 29.5 million. Today, two million tablets are consumed daily in Bangladesh and it is pouring in over the Naf River in Myanmar. But is it only Myanmar that is producing it in different colours or do we have a regional problem here?
From what has been published in the media, yaba is a cheap synthetic drug that requires no natural ingredients. Hence, unlike cannabis or heroin, it can be produced in a laboratory which has made this drug's widespread use so easy. Back in 2012, the drug cartels in Myanmar decided to shift their supply chain of yaba through Bangladesh because the traditional route through Thailand had effectively been checked by the China-Thailand joint programme 'Safe Mekong' which cut off the usual movement of drugs through Thailand. Increasingly, we have found that local production of the drug is taking hold in Bangladesh. In an effort to stem the rise of domestically produced yaba, the government has taken steps to ban the import of cold-medicine component pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the making of yaba tablets.
According to narcotics officials, evidence has emerged that labs situated on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, which is largely unpatrolled, are producing yaba tablets in their millions. Pseudoephedrine, the import of which skyrocketed by more than six times to around 20 tonnes from five years ago, was being diverted to the production of the finished product.
It is good to see that local industry is responding but it is too early to comment whether the ban will have its intended effect. With Bangladesh becoming a transit point for this particular chemical for use—not just in Myanmar but in other countries in the region—we will have to wait and see if the ban will have the desired effect because there is the risk of Indian pseudoephedrine being re-routed through Bangladesh to reach factories in Myanmar unless similar steps are taken in that country.
Since 2012, we have seen the rapid proliferation of yaba usage from a trickle to a flood. Bangladesh became a natural choice for smugglers due to the fact that it shares a 4,000km porous border with India. In a recent article titled "Inside Bangladesh's methamphetamine problem" published on July 23 in asia.nikkei.com, Tom Kramer, a Myanmar expert with the international research and advocacy body Transnational Institute is quoted as saying, “rebel groups in Myanmar like the United WA State Army have been accused of simply shifting from the opium and heroin business to amphetamine manufacturing. The increase in production and use of amphetamine pills has been driven by both demand and supply, as well as profound socio-economic changes in the affected countries, which have moved from rural agricultural based economies to urban, industrial and market-based societies.”
A growing middle class in Bangladesh means more money in the hands of people. That social acceptance to this multi-coloured pill is ever-increasing has health practitioners and policymakers worried about the health, criminal and psychological implications this “crazy medicine” will have for the country. With yaba usage being touted as a symbol of smartness and the ease with which it can be carried and peddled, the worry is how fast it becomes the staple for the 15–30 age group which makes up a third of Bangladesh's population. With prices ranging from Tk 300 to Tk 1,800 (depending on grade) for a single pill, there is no official data on the exact number of users in the country. An overdose of the brightly coloured pills can result in hyperthermia convulsions and death while side effects can cause users to become violent, suffer from paranoia, confusion, anxiety and insomnia. It has been touted as a slimming agent and one that increases energy.
Campaign against drugs is a tricky issue. Law enforcement is just one facet. Beyond media campaigns, treatment and rehabilitation, what we need is an education strategy that takes the message to children in the schooling system. Indeed, school-based programmes, particularly at the secondary school level are where drugs take hold. We have to understand that any such programme will take years to yield positive results. The new emphasis is on building self-esteem and skills in problem-solving and communication. Mere bombardment of information on drugs (as had been the case previously) has not worked and the new approach replaces lectures with student participation. It is all about providing children with coping skills to face situations that can lead to drug abuse; help recognise pressures that influence them to smoke or use drugs; and resist peer pressure. These are the findings of UN International Drug Control Programme from more than two decades ago, and something our policymakers need to look into.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.