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Surge in injecting drug use fueling AIDS epidemic in Myanmar, report warns

Efforts to curb illegal drug production, distribution and use in Southeast Asia have failed, and the area known globally as the Golden Triangle has seen opium cultivation more than double since 2006, a new report by a European nongovernmental organisation warns.

Myanmar’s production of opium is the highest in the region and accounts for about one-quarter of global output, the report by the Transnational Institute says, noting that only Afghanistan produces more opium than Myanmar.

Myanmar is also seeing an increase in the number of drug users, and they are switching from smoking opium to injecting heroin. The surge in injecting drug users could fuel and expansion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Myanmar where  “infection rates among drug users are among the highest in the world”, the report says. “There is an urgent need to scale up quality prevention, treatment and harm reduction services for drug users and people living with HIV,” the report says.

Called “Bouncing Back: Relapse in the Golden Triangle”, the report says regional efforts to curtail opium cultivation and the heroin trade have failed. 

“National and local authorities have aggressively implemented opium bans and eradicated opium fields in response to international political pressure. The main underlying reasons, however – poverty and insecurity – have not been properly addressed,” the report says.

In Myanmar opium poppy is cultivated primarily in conflict areas by “farmers in isolated mountainous areas in the Shan and Kachin States”, the report says, adding that they have few other options to make a living. Decades of civil conflict is a key driver of the drug trade. “All conflict actors in drug-producing areas are to some extent involved in the drugs trade,” the report says.

Tom Cramer, lead author of the report, said that unless “regional governments and the international community properly address poverty, conflict and rising demand for heroin in China, opium bans and eradication will continue to fail.”

“Alternative livelihoods need to be firmly in place before communities can be expected to abandon illicit cultivation,” he said.

The research by TNI found a strong connection between production in the Golden Triangle (Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) and neighboring countries China and India. Opium cultivation in Northeast India is linked to a pattern of supply and demand in Myanmar, and both India and China are major producers of precursors of heroin as well as methamphetamine stimulants. 

ASEAN’s goal of becoming “drug free” by 2015 is unlikely to be met as production of drugs is surging, the report says.

Myanmar is also seeing an increase in the number of drug users, and they are switching from smoking opium to injecting heroin, the report says. The surge in injecting drug users could fuel and expansion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Myanmar where  “infection rates among drug users are among the highest in the world”, the report says. “There is an urgent need to scale up quality prevention, treatment and harm reduction services for drug users and people living with HIV,” the report says.

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