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An inside look at drug addiction in Thailand

drug_policy_2Here in the U.S., the opioid crisis is commanding headlines - but drug abuse abounds worldwide, taking a variety of forms.

In Thailand, a leaf called kratom, which was used traditionally by laborers to blunt the effects of hard physical work, is hooking young people. Epidemiologist Darika Saingam, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, has conducted more than 1,000 interviews with policymakers, addicts, and others in southern Thailand in an effort to discern the scope of the problem and figure out which policies and health programs could help. She's shown above, sifting through kratom leaves.

Saingam discussed her work in a recent Stanford Asia Health Policy program article, which mentions that as many as 1.2 million people were involved in drug activities in 2014. She explains:

Adults in Thailand use drugs to relieve stress and counteract the effects of work. Adolescents use them for entertainment. Historically, farmers and laborers from rural areas of Thailand would use opium for pain relief. More recently, a consumable tablet known as yaba has become popular along with crystal methamphetamine and marijuana. Young people are increasingly using yaba and kratom.

Thailand is still a developing country, but it is industrializing quickly. Social and cultural norms have been shifting and people want an improved quality of life. A lot of young people are unemployed and lack social support and are therefore more likely to turn to drug trafficking for economic opportunity. The economic recession and political strife in countries bordering Thailand have exacerbated the situation.

Saingam is also looking for ways to remedy the problem. But she says some programs haven't worked:

An example of this is politicians ordering to cut down kratom trees – a public display that does not get at the root cause of the problem. The reality is that drug users will quickly find substitutes. According to my study, of the regular users that stopped using kratom, more than 50 percent turned to alcohol instead and did so on a daily basis. This is merely a shift from one substance to another.

On the upside, a crop substitution program created under King Bhumibol Adulyadej offers a successful working model. The program works to replace opium poppy farming with cash crop production. It began in 1969 and is cited for helping an estimated 100,000 people convert their drug crop production to sustainable agricultural activities.

Previously: Stanford addiction expert: "The country needs to spring into action" on heroin epidemic, Increasing access to an anti-overdose drug and A reminder that addiction is a chronic disease
Photo courtesy of Darika Saingam

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