The Ya Ba Crisis of Thailand and Minnesota
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- I wonder if St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, on his recent
trip to Thailand to meet a new group of Hmong refugees heading to America,
noticed a rampaging social problem that Thailand shares with Minnesota:
an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse.
Thailand's Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra has called methamphetamine -- in Thai it's called "ya ba" for "crazy medicine" --
the nation's No. 1 national security problem. That's because of the vast
tax sums Thailand has had to spend on education, interdiction, seeking
out and destroying meth labs, prison overcrowding, and rehabilitation
Sound familiar, Minnesota?
In fact, the sickness is far more advanced in Thailand than it is
here -- so far.
Up to one in five Thais have used methamphetamine, which is also
diligent drug" in Thailand because it's used by truck drivers, cabbies,
factory workers and others who need to work long hours to make enough
money to survive. Meth in Thailand is usually taken in pill form, while
the inhalable powder form is more popular in Minnesota.
mid-1997, Thailand's economy crashed, shrinking by 12 percent
in one year and putting 2 million Thai's
out of work. Many of the jobless
ba" for relief. Quickly sucked into
addiction, they started selling the pills
themselves to make money to buy more, creating
direct-sales network that accelerated and
amplified the epidemic many times. By 2002,
90 percent of all drug cases involved methamphetamines.
Worst of all was the "Ruthless Campaign" launched by the Thai
government last year to snuff out the crisis. Started on Feb. 1, 2003,
the campaign began with a mass media anti-drug blitz but quickly turned
Prime Minister Thaksin, known as the toughest Southeast Asian
leader since Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, announced that "it may be necessary
to have casualties. If there are deaths among dealers, it's normal."
Over the next two months -- until an international outcry
brought attention to the executions -- as many as 3,000
drug dealers but
also many innocents, were caught in the crossfire, killed
by gunshots to the head. The government showed, night
on its TV
channels, images of methamphetamine dealers lying in
pools of blood. After
liberal Thai newspapers began to protest, joining the
the government backed off the "Ruthless Campaign" and the killings
That last bit definitely doesn't sound like Minnesota,
But make no mistake, the meth crisis in this state
is part of the same global contagion that Thailand
we have many
of the same contributing factors to the epidemic
to the Thai crisis, only mixed in a less lethal
form. A main similarity
is an economic downturn feeding the problem, which
begins in rural areas and moves to the cities.
can learn many lessons, positive and negative, from studying
Thailand's handling of the epidemic.
for instance, was
obviously a non-starter.
after retreating from the Ruthless Campaign, more enlightened
Thai government agencies and actors got started on the problem,
and they've made major headway.
started on a new tack to fight meth by employing
the same techniques
HIV/AIDS in Thailand.
of that campaign
was intensive social
education about the risks of HIV and the steps to
prevent it, carried out
in schools, markets, brothels, and in the media.
Those steps won international praise for Thailand,
which because of its vast sex industry was
thought to be in
danger of infection
the country could collapse. It didn't happen.
Just to see the meth problem as one of state
security, as Thailand
properly saw the HIV/Aids threat, is
a major positive
In Thailand, this
is easier because most
of the "ya ba" in Thailand is manufactured
by rebel states in neighboring northern Burma (Myanmar), which uses drug
trafficking to finance their war for independence.
It might be harder for us in Minnesota to see
our connection to Burma than it is for
the Thais, but
the same connections
just like the flu, start one place in the
world and find their way to another. Wars of revolution
of the world
crises in another.
We saw it happen with cocaine. Now with
meth. Sometimes the route of infection
such as in California,
smugglers use the state's large Thai
immigrant population as cover to import
millions of Burma-made "ya ba" pills into the state, fueling a meth
Other times a variant strain arises,
such in Minnesota
where the home-cooked, powdered
of meth is
favored by users.
In any case, we've caught the bug. And
we can learn from Thailand's mistakes
us get over
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report