Drug addiction grows on Thai rubber farms

Exhausted by long hours, workers in northeastern Thailand are turning to ‘yaba’ methamphetamine to stay awake.

Rubber farmers in northern Thailand don't finish tapping trees until the sun comes up [Glenn Brown/Al Jazeera]

Loei, Thailand – Cap started taking meth regularly when he was 13-years old.

His father needed help on the family’s rubber fields, so Cap pitched in from 1am to 4am, cutting back the bark of rubber trees and collecting the valuable milky-white fluid.

I could only go to school when I had taken yaba.

by - Cat, Thai rubber farmer

“It’s hard work, and taking yaba helped,” said the 16-year-old rubber farmer at Wang Saphung Hospital’s drug treatment facility, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Cap. “I just didn’t feel tired any more.”

Called “yaba”, or “crazy medicine”, the energy-inducing drug is pouring in from Myanmar and sweeping through the countryside, attracting farmers who are under pressure to work longer hours and harvest at faster speeds.

Cap’s school started at 8am, so he began to rely on meth to stay awake through the long days.

“After a little while, I stopped going to school every day. I just didn’t have the will or the strength,” Cap said, adding most rubber farmers in his area were also using the drug. “I could only go to school when I had taken yaba.”

In the rice-growing region of northeast Thailand, farmers are rarely just rice farmers any more. Many also pick up odd construction jobs, grow corn in the evening, tap rubber overnight, and run their own side businesses.

Meth menace

As more cash crops and job opportunities have come to the northeast, the growing methamphetamine menace has also made its way into the fabric of daily life.

“Often these are people who have day jobs and work on their fields at night,” explained Wirayuth Raengdee, an official from Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board. “They’re taking the drugs to produce more on their fields and earn more money.”

In turn, this region has seen a 700 percent increase in the number of people arrested for meth since 2008, according to data from the Narcotics Suppression Bureau. Last year, authorities counted more than 33,000 meth-related arrests in the northeast. The rapid rise here fits into a larger surge across Asia, which now accounts for more than 50 percent of amphetamine-type stimulants’ global users.

Since the 1960s, the Thai government has promoted cash-crop farming in the northeast, the poorest region in the country. Now, a rubber boom is under way and the acreage of mature rubber tree plantations has tripled in the past three years. In almost no time, the northeast has emerged as the country’s second-largest region for rubber production, surpassed only by the south.

Thai children seek help for drug addiction

But with the cash crop came extended and unusual working hours for farmers. They tap rubber trees in the dark hours before dawn, collecting the flowing latex before it hardens in the midday heat.

In Wang Saphung district in Loei, a major rubber-producing province, officials said meth use among rubber farmers is rampant.

Last year, 60 percent of the drug treatment patients in Wang Saphung Hospital were rubber farmers, and nearly all were addicted to meth.

As the world’s largest natural rubber producer, Thailand has invested heavily in rubber farms around the country, training and supporting tens of thousands of rubber growers such as Cap’s father.

For many, the new crop has brought a boost in income. Cap’s family now earns about $6,000 a year from rubber, more than five times what they made from growing cassava.

But the meth that Cap took to help fuel his work has now robbed him of his education. He dropped out of school when his addiction got the better of him, and though he is now clean, he has no plans to return.

‘On every corner’ 

In Khon Kaen, a province known for sugarcane farming, district health officials see a similar pattern among farmers, many of whom work in the fields by day, load trucks with sugarcane by night, and hold secondary jobs on the side.

If you want to get high, it's as easy as going to 7-Eleven.

by - Supankalaya Lamleua, health official

Supankalaya Lamleua, a public health official at the city hospital, organises group therapy and job-training programmes for meth users in sugarcane villages. She said the drug problem in these high-risk communities is far from hidden.

“If you want to get high, it’s as easy as going to the 7-Eleven,” she said. “Yaba is on every corner.”

In interviews with sugarcane farmers, Supankalaya and her colleagues often hear allegations that employers buy the drug for farmers working their fields, though employers deny responsibility. Some villagers claim in the worst circumstances, landowners opt to simply dissolve the drug in the farmers’ drinking water.

Ken Putthakam, a Khon Kaen sugarcane farmer, said employers in his industry have played a large role in driving meth addiction.

“Usage here depends on how the people who want sugarcane pressure us,” he told Al Jazeera. “If sugar mill agents and landowners want farmers to work for them, they’ll pay for the drug so that farmers can cut more cane in a shorter timespan.”

War on drugs

Last year, authorities seized 126 million meth pills, the highest number in the country’s history, according to the Narcotics Suppression Bureau. And they saw a three-fold increase in meth-related arrests between 2010 and 2013. 

Stricter policing, compulsory treatment programmes, and highly punitive sentencing have raised fears among small-time users. In the northeast, police commonly drive into farming communities and schoolyards, find a few people who are using, and arrest them. And the families of the accused then scrape together the funds to make bail.

That was Cap’s story. Like many other minors in his treatment programme, he was given a urine test during a raid, charged as a drug addict, and court-ordered to attend treatment.

It could have been worse for him. In some cases, users are sent to military boot camps for four months of physical exercise and Buddhist re-education programmes. Major dealers or traffickers can face lifelong imprisonment, or even capital punishment.

Under the new military government, Thailand’s anti-drug policies have only intensified. In July, the Ministry of Justice revealed a $300m initiative to track down the country’s estimated 1.2 million drug addicts for mandatory treatment.

But according to public health officials, what’s needed is funding for community-based support.

“The police make things worse by strict policing,” said Supankalaya. “The villagers are upset because they get arrested, post bail, get arrested again, and post bail again. It doesn’t help at all.”

Follow Lizzie Presser @lizziepresser and Fabian Drahmoune @Mounedrah on Twitter 

Source: Al Jazeera