The estimated opium poppy cultivation in 2008 was 1,900 hectares, about a 73 percent increase from 2007; estimated potential opium production in 2008 more than tripled to 17 metric tons. There have been unsubstantiated reports of domestic methamphetamine production. In terms of usage there is growing domestic methamphetamine problem (2007). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Marijuana grows wild along the rivers in the south of Laos. Northern Laos is part of the Golden Triangle opium-growing area. Even though Laos is producer of drugs, the use of drugs has traditionally been frowned upon by lowland Lao and associated with the hill tribes in northern Laos. Penalties for possession, acquisition, and trafficking of drugs are severe and include heavy fines, mandatory imprisonment in local jails or worse.

According to The Economist: “Laos was long regarded as one side of the Golden Triangle, which was responsible for producing over half of the world's opium as recently as the 1990s. At one point smoking crude opium had become a macabre tourist attraction for foreign visitors slumming it in northern Laos.” [Source: The Economist , July 19, 2011]

See Separate Articles on the Golden Triangle and More detailed articles under Myanmar.

Drug Laws in Laos

Opium is not legal. Smoking it i s punishable by 3 to 10 years in prison. Possession of less than a kilogram can bring a sentence of 2 to 7 years.

In the early 2000s, Laos introduced the death penalty for serious drug offenses. Previously the maximum sentence was 10 years in prison. According to an official quoted in the Vientiane Mai newspaper, the laws were enacted to “halt the potential danger to the youth in the future and the safety and security of the country.”

Under Lao law the death penalty by firing squad is mandatory for possession of over 500 grams of heroin. At least 39 people have been sentenced to death for a variety of offences between 2003 and 2009. The Criminal Code of Laos penalizes possession of narcotics under Article 135. Under an amendment to the existing Code, possession of at least 3.5 ounces (100g) of heroin can get you 10 years' imprisonment and a fine of up to $35,000 (100 million kip).

See Crime

Pregnant British Faced Death Penalty in Laos for Smuggling Heroin

In 2009, The Telegraph reported: “ A pregnant British woman, Samantha Orobator, is facing death by firing squad for smuggling heroin in what campaigners describe as a "hasty show trial" in Laos. Miss Orobator, 20, from London was arrested in August 2008 at Wattay airport outside Vientiane. Prosecutors claim she had 680 grams (1.3lb or 21 oz) of heroin in her luggage.[Source: Thomas Bell, the Telegraph, May 1, 2009]

According to the legal campaign group Reprieve she has not met a lawyer since she was arrested nine months ago but it is believed that she denies the drugs were hers. Miss Orobator had been on holiday in Holland, Thailand and Laos for around a month when she was arrested as she began her journey home. Her friends in London, interviewed by Reprieve researchers preparing her defence, say she had never been involved with drugs.

Without warning or explanation, the government of Laos rescheduled Miss Orobator's trial. A statement by Reprieve said: "By scheduling her trial for next week, the Laos court has made it impossible for any lawyer to prepare an adequate defence... Samatha's life now hangs in the balance." The fast tracking of the trial came as the Lao authorities knew that a lawyer from Reprieve was preparing to meet Miss Orobator for the first time. "Laos appears to be acting in a way that frustrates Samantha's right to appropriate legal assistance," Reprieve concluded.

Miss Orobator became pregnant in unknown circumstances in December, four months after she was arrested. "It is not possible to confirm whether she was raped," Reprieve said. "The prison where she is being held in Phonthong is meant to be all female, but this is apparently not the case."Reports of the notoriously abusive Phonthong prison describe "highly unsanitary" conditions, inadequate rations and severe punishments for supposed breaches of discipline. Another British prisoner, Michael Newman, died after being reportedly refused medical attention at the same prison in 2008.

In July 2009, after being given a life sentence, Orobator was released. The BBC reported: A pregnant Briton jailed for smuggling heroin in Laos has been handed to UK Ministry of Justice officials, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says. The transfer took place in Vientiane, capital of Laos. Samantha Orobator will now return to the UK to give birth and serve out her life sentence in Britain. Orobator admitted trying to smuggle the heroin through Wattay airport in an effort to take it to Australia. She avoided Laos's mandatory death penalty because of her pregnancy. Foreign Office Minister, Chris Bryant, said it was "excellent news" but also emphasised the FCO did not condone crimes involving illegal drugs. [Source: BBC, August 6, 2009]

FCO was continuing to work for the early transfer of John Watson, a Briton from Bradford who is imprisoned in Laos. Watson, 47, was identified as the father of Orobator's baby in a statement read out on her behalf by the local prosecutor.Her statement said she had artificially inseminated herself while in prison using Watson's semen. He is also serving a life sentence for drug smuggling after being detained in December 2003.

Drug Travelers

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence on the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975): “Vientiane is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than hotels, marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer. Opium is a restful drug, the perfect thing for geriatrics, but the chromatic snooze it induces corrects fatigue; after an evening of it the last thing you want to do is sleep again.”

Many backpackers and young traveler come to Laos to do drugs One Australia drug traveler told AP, "I'm doing the drug tour of Southeast Asia. I've been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but so far, Laos is tops." Travelers say this because the opium is cheap and more available and their is less of a police presence.

Some young Laotians in places where Western tourist congregate, like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, locals have turned to drugs after seeing their use glaomorized by Western backpackers. Even though drugs like opium and marijuana have been available to them they never of doung them until the say Westerners taking. Some are also doing drugs likee Ecastacy.

Two Dead Aussies Raise Concerns About 'Bad Drugs' in Laos

In January 2013, Lindsay Murdoch of Fairfax reported: “They were happy knockabout workers on boats in the Northern Territory. Both have been found dead within four days of each other in Laos, a popular destination for backpackers, where they had gone for a holiday before Christmas. Nicholas Parkin, known as Nick, 39, was found in a hotel room in the country's riverside capital Vientiane on January 4. On New Year's Day, his friend Kane Scriven, 40, died after a night of partying, adding to concerns about binge drinking and potentially fatal locally brewed cocktails in South-East Asia. The ABC is reporting it understands the men died from overdoses, likely from the same batch of drugs.[Source: Lindsay Murdoch, Fairfax, January 10, 2013 ***]
“The Northern Territory News earlier reported that Mr Parkin had not been heard of since January 2 after contacting Mr Scriven's friends. Mr Parkin's father, John Parkin said his son had been very distressed by his friend's death when he contacted the family on January 2. ''He was by himself with Kane and they were very good mates,'' he was quoted by ninemsn as saying. ''From what little he said on email, he was deeply affected by Kane's death. We lost contact with him after that.'' ***

“Mr Parkin said the two men had flown to South-East Asia after Mr Scriven had bought his mate a ticket to Thailand as a Christmas present. ''I thought they were staying at the usual tourist haunts, but Nick was a bit adventurous,'' Mr Parkin said. Mr Parkin said his son was a ''fun loving, nice guy who really enjoyed his work''. ***

Vang Vieng: Laos’s Backpacker Party Town

Vang Vieng, deep in the jungle of Laos, is a backpacker paradise where there are no rules. Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Vang Vieng is the planet's most improbable party town. Located deep in central Laos, one of southeast Asia's poorest countries, the once-tranquil farming village has become a seething epicentre of backpackers behaving badly. "God no, you don't come to Vang Vieng for the culture, like temples and stuff," laughs a 19-year-old Australian called Louise, who is dancing to a Flo Rida anthem with a beer bottle in each hand at one of the many riverside bars. "You come here to get wasted." Half an hour later I spot Louise vomiting over her sparkly flip-flops before passing out. Got it. Vang Vieng is a four-hour bus journey on mostly dirt roads from the capital Vientiane. After Communist-run Laos opened up in the early 1990s, the town first earned a place on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail – the path beaten by budget travellers across southeast Asia – thanks to its natural beauty. Along with its towering limestone peaks, the area is dense with caves, lagoons and forests. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“As tourists started to trickle back into Laos in the 1990s Thanongsi Sorangkoun, a Vang Vieng native, built a guesthouse for foreigners who wanted to volunteer on his 30 acres of mulberry trees and vegetable gardens. Then, in 1998, he made a fateful purchase. "I bought some inner tubes for my volunteers. I thought it would be a cheap and ecological way to see the river." He grimaces. "I accidentally started this whole thing." In the early 2000s, “the pastime of riding tractor-tyre inner tubes down the meandering Nam Song river started to gain word-of-mouth popularity. Tubing became so popular that locals started up a business co-operative to rent out tubes, which now comprises over 1,500 households. Many shareholders are now caught in a classic tourism catch-22. They've become too dependent on the income tubing generates to stop the business, but they're paying a much higher price than they expected for its success.” In the late 2000s “the scene has exploded. Ramshackle wooden bars opened along the river banks, enticing passing tubing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the local Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting sozzled gap-year kids to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of derring-do. ||||

“The rapid development quickly earned this once pristine stretch of the Nam Song a new label on the town map: "Water Fun Park". And after some enterprising locals printed the T-shirt – "Tubing in the Vang Vieng, Laos" – there was no going back. In Vang Vieng province (population 51,000), backpackers now outnumber locals by about three to one. In the main town, where nearly all the tourism is concentrated, the figure on any given day is an astonishing 15 to one. ||||

“A low-rise mix of French colonial bungalows, wooden houses and small concrete buildings, the entire town has become a backpackers' bazaar catering to the estimated 170,000 who arrive every year. The two main streets are a jumble of restaurants, bars, internet cafés, pancake stalls, travel agents and £3-a-night guesthouses. Most tourists are European and Australian, but other nationalities have found their way here, too: recently de-mobbed Israeli boy-soldiers, Japanese college students, South American rich kids. A bunch of nattily dressed Indians in wraparound shades turn out to be IT workers from Bangalore, who've come to "blow off steam" after finishing a big telecom project. ||||

Partying Western Backpackers in Vang Vieng

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “It is Adam Axford's last day in Vang Vieng. We know this because scrawled across his naked torso in jumbo marker pen are the words "Last Day!" The 26-year-old Essex boy is returning to Ilford ("the real world") in the morning, and the message is designed to elicit "snogs and sympathy" from the spray-painted, bikini-clad women partying at a riverside bar in this tiny town in rural Laos.A tattoo on Axford's hip reads: "Viva Vang Vieng". The same words adorn the baseball cap he wears over his sweat-matted hair. "You must really love this place," I yell above the techno music shaking the rickety bamboo bar beside the Nam Song river. "Yeah," shouts Axford. "I really, really love this place. Every morning I hug these mountains. I thank them because I've never been happier in my life." [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“It's midday on the banks of the Nam Song. Adam Axford, who's a part-time magician back in Ilford, is spending his last day organising drinking games. "Lime in the eye!" he shouts, inviting the crowd to join a contest involving downing a shot, snorting salt and squeezing lime juice into their eyeballs. "It doesn't get any more stupid than this!" he enthuses. Axford, however, is drinking shandy. He's spent the last five months working as a "volunteer" at the Q Bar and knows to pace himself. Around 60 to 70 westerners work in the bars informally. Painted in party slogans, they hand out free shots and keep the atmosphere cranked up. It's a clever move on the part of the mostly Laotian bar owners, and a big factor in Vang Vieng's singular hedonistic excess. "Backpackers trust other westerners. They don't worry that the drinks are spiked or that they're getting ripped off," explains Canadian volunteer Scotty Balon, 31, who's sporting the invitation "Kiss Me. I'm Shit-Faced" across his chest. ||||

Drugs and Alcohol in Vang Vieng

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Blowing off steam is one of the more grandma-friendly ways to describe Vang Vieng's backpacker appeal. The riverside FU BAR, where the Indian IT workers are hooting with laughter as they jump into the water fully clothed, is more direct: a giant sign explains that the name means Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. It's also more accurate. At around £1 a litre, Lao-Lao is so cheap it's served in beach buckets. Bottled water, as everyone here loves to mention, is more expensive. Lao-Lao has an alcohol content of around 45 percent. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“Drugs are plentiful, too. Nearly every restaurant offers "happy" pizzas and "magic" shakes or teas laden with marijuana, opium and mushrooms. Most places advertise such fare on sandwich boards right outside. And many travellers are high not only on booze or drugs – a euphoria pervades the riverside bars and clubs that has more to do with the complete absence of rules or responsibilities, a kids-in-a-candy-store incredulity that you can go wild here and nobody will stop you. It's a similar scene to Thailand's infamous full-moon parties, except for one crucial difference. The party in Vang Vieng doesn't occur only one night every six weeks. The party here never ends. ||||

"Vang Vieng sells JOY, it sells an illusion of total freedom," says Sengkeo "Bob" Frichitthavong, 38, a local guesthouse owner who was born in Vang Vieng, but spent 12 years in Canada. "Lao people are very peaceful and tolerant; we don't complain. Backpackers think we don't care how they behave because we're making money from tourism. But there are many dark sides to what is happening." ||||

Vang Vieng: Laos’s Deadly Party Town

In 2011 at least 27 travellers died in Vang Vieng, and countless more were injured. Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Frequent tragedies occur as a result of mixing alcohol with tubing, and other river stunts. Vang Vieng's tiny hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths in 2011 due to drowning or diving head first into rocks, including that of a 23-year-old Dorset man, Benjamin Light. A senior doctor at the hospital, Dr Chit, says the overall figure is higher because "many fatalities are taken straight to Vientiane". [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“In early 2012, two Australian backpackers died within a month. First, Lee Hudswell, 26, somersaulted into the river from an area marked with a "Do Not Jump" sign and fatally cracked his skull on a large rock. (The sign, hastily rewritten by hand, now reads, "Do Not Jump or You Will Die".) Daniel Eimutis, 19, drowned while tubing a couple of weeks later. Both had been drinking, said their friends. ||||

“Dr Chit says five to 10 backpackers a day arrive at the hospital with injuries such as broken bones or infected gashes, or sickness caused by alcohol or drugs. One tourist scraped all the skin off her face on the rocks. "There are no safety measures or supervision, no helmets," says Dr Chit. "We're not equipped to treat anything serious." People with broken limbs must go to Vientiane, an agonising journey over the pot-holed roads. Dr Chit, a stocky man in his 50s, never stops smiling, but says hospital staff are "frustrated". ||||

“Most fatalities occur on the same bar-heavy stretch of river that's less than 1km long. "It's pure Darwinism," says backpacking travel expert Stuart McDonald, a regular visitor to Laos and the Australian founder of "If kids keep getting tanked and jumping off trees or ropes, they're going to keep dying." The Laotian authorities, he adds, do nothing because they have vested interests in the river bars. Many drug-related deaths in Vang Vieng go unreported. "We often get first-hand accounts from travellers about people dying from overdoses or bad batches." ||||

Opium in Laos

Today, Laos accounts for just two percent of global production, while Afghanistan has a share of more than 70 percent and Myanmar over 20 percent. But in the past Laos produced much more. The estimated opium poppy cultivation in 2008 was 1,900 hectares, about a 73 percent increase from 2007; estimated potential opium production in 2008 more than tripled to 17 metric tons.[Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, May 3, 2011, CIA World Factbook]

Opium use was long tolerated by the government and was only made illegal in 1996. In the late 1990s it was estimated that opium addicts in Laos consumed about 60 metric tons of opium a year. Opium dens were permitted until the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975. In the early 1970s there were over 60 licensed opium dens in Vientiane and many more illegal ones. There are reportedly still some opium dens around. According to one French study, opium was consumed by 11 percent of the people who live in villages where it was produced by only 5 in 1,000 or so were so addicted the could not work.

Opium production peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s when about 20,000 hectares was devoted to the crops and it was the No. 3 producer in the world after Myanmar and Afghanistan. The figure declined after that and reached about 2,500 hectares in 2007 when Laos was the sixth in the world behind Afghanistan, Myanmar, Mexico, Pakistan and Columbia.

Laos produced about 200 metric tons of opium in 1996. This was half what it produced in 1989. In 1983 it produced about 50 tons of opium. In the 1990s about half was consumed locally and the other half was smuggled out and mostly made into heroin.

At its peak, Laos had the second-highest concentration of opium addicts in the world, after Iran, but U.N. figures show that the number of addicts has shrunk from 63,000 in 1998 to around 21,000 in 2005. [Source: Nick Meo, San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2005]

History of Opium Production

Opium has been grown in Laos for centuries but mainly for local use or sold to the colonial French. Production took off when an anti-drug law was passed in Laos in 1971 that ironically increased production by driving up prices and attracting criminal gangs.

In the 1970s Laos produced 100 tons of opium a year. Much of the heroin that ended up in the arms of American soldiers in Vietnam is thought have been made with opium from Laos. Much of it was grown by Hmong tribes people.

The U.S. government forced the Laotian government to declare opium illegal. The Hmong suffered and were confused. It was the French, Laotian and American governments, after all that encouraged them to grow opium in the first place. Moreover, American helicopters sprayed the Hmong fields with herbicides, killing rice, bananas and corn as well as opium poppies. Women and children reportedly got very sick; some died.

Largest illegal opium producers (1983): 1) Burma (60,000 hectares under cultivation produced 600 metric tons); 2) Iran (20,000 hectares, according to 1980 statistics); 3) Afghanistan (20,000 hectares); 4) Pakistan (4,500 hectares); 5) Mexico (4,100 hectares); 6) Thailand (3,500 hectares); 7) Laos (3,500 hectares); 8) Egypt (300 hectares).

Illegal opium production (tons in 2000); 1) Afghanistan (3,276); 2) Myanmar-Burma (1,087); 3) Laos (167); 4) Columbia (88); 5) Mexico (22); 6) Pakistan (8); 7) Thailand (6); 8) Vietnam (2).

Opium production has been dramatically reduced. In 1997, the United States signed an agreement to provide Laos to provide $2 million in aid to combat narcotics. Most of the money was earmarked for rural development in northern provinces where the opium is grown. Under a United Nations pilot project, farmers were encouraged to grow coffee, rice and chilies rather than opium. The Laotian government promised to cooperate with the United States in its effort to eradicate drugs. It promised in 2003 to eradicate drug production by 2005,

CIA and the Opium Trade in Laos

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA allegedly helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. There is much controversy about how deeply the CIA was involved in the Southeast Asia drug trade. If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade. See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

William M. Leary, the University of Georgia historian, wrote: “For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill.... As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: "American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors — just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam."

According to Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, the French administration of Indochina had financed its covert operations with the drug trade, and the CIA had simply replaced the French, to finance similar operations. He said he was told by retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA that the French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade: “The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence. He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

“During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940s to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism. Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism. During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980s, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States. While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you're involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.”

Hmong, Hill Tribes and Opium

Opium in Laos is produced mainly in the Golden Triangle area of northwest Laos by the Hmong. Akha, Lolo and Moen hill tribes. By one estimate 60,000 families in 222 villages produced opium in the early 2000s. Planting is usually done in October, with the harvest in January and February. Unlike Burma, not much of the money goes to support insurgencies. Most ends up in pockets of traffickers and to a lesser extent farmers.

Hmong have traditionally grown opium in small quantities for medicinal and ritual purposes. From the beginning of their colonial presence, the need for revenue prompted the French to encourage expanded opium production for sale to the colonial monopoly and for payment as head taxes. Production, therefore, increased considerably under French rule, and by the 1930s, opium had become an important cash crop for the Hmong and some other Lao Sung groups. Hmong participate in the cash market economy somewhat more than other upland groups. They need to purchase rice or corn to supplement inadequate harvests, to buy cloth, clothing, and household goods, to save for such emergencies as illness or funerals, and to pay bride-price. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the isolated upland settlements favored by the Lao Sung, opium poppies, a cold-season crop, are typically planted in cornfields after the main harvest. Opium, a sap extracted from the poppy plant, is almost the only product that combines high value with low bulk and is nonperishable, making it easy to transport. It is thus an ideal crop, providing important insurance for the household against harvest or health crises. The government has officially outlawed opium production, but, mindful of the critical role it plays in the subsistence upland economy, has concentrated efforts on education and developing alternatives to poppy farming, rather than on stringent enforcement of the ban. It also established a special police counternarcotics unit in August 1992. *

Laos Anti-Opium Campaign in the 1990s and 2000s

The The Economist reported: “Facing pressure from America and the UN, the Laotian government, together with its counterparts in Myanmar and Thailand, conducted a wildly successful eradication programme in the late 1990s that saw poppy cultivation plummet. From the 27,000 hectares (over 40,000 football pitches) that were under cultivation in 1998, within eight years the Laotian government had brought the total crop yield close to nil. Close enough that it was able to declare the country opium-free by early 2006. Contemporary reports suggested that it was no Potemkin clean-up job—towns such as Vang Vieng reinvented themselves as destinations for a different type of visitor. The government's efforts at repressing production were augmented happily by a simultaneous explosion in poppy growth in Afghanistan. By 2006 Afghanistan was growing seven times the amount of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos combined. A subsequent glut sent global prices plummeting, aiding the eradication efforts of the South-East Asian governments.[Source: The Economist , July 19, 2011]

Reuters reportedl: “Laos declared itself free of poppy cultivation in February 2006. It was able to accomplish this through a battery of measures including agreements with farmers who pledged to stop growing poppies or risk seeing their fields destroyed. ''It's a carrot-and-stick approach,'' said one aid official who asked not to be identified. ''But we don't have enough carrot, we have a lot of stick.'' [Source: Reuters, May 14, 2006]

“The measures appear to be working — and with little of the trauma that came with Thailand's ''war on drugs'', which resulted in the extrajudicial deaths of more than 2,500 people. Now, 1,800 hectares of land are used to cultivate poppies, down from 6,600 hectares a year earlier and 26,800 hectares in 1998, according to the UNODC. The average price of opium has risen 139 per cent to 521 dollars a kg from the same period a year ago, reflecting its scarcity, the UNODC said. Former users have mostly resigned themselves to going elsewhere for relief. ''I used to use it when I had aches and pains,'' said Sio Diah, 70.

Impact of Laos’s Anti-Opium Campaign on Laotian Villagers

Reporting from Sam Neua, Laos in 2005, Nick Meo wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Since doctors confiscated Kua Ya's opium pipe in February, the septuagenarian grandmother has been forced to do without her usual six pipes a night to ease her aches and pains. Around the same time, officials arrived and tore up poppy plants growing on the hillsides of her village as part of a Communist Party program to eradicate the drug by next year. The results are clear on the hillsides of Hua Phan province on the Vietnam border. Slopes that were awash in white and purple opium poppy blooms two years ago now sprout sticky rice. And villages where about 1 in 10 was a sallow-faced addict have collectively gone cold turkey.[Source: Nick Meo, San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2005 |^|]

“The campaign is well on its way to victory. In the past five years, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime says, the poppy crop has been reduced by 73 percent. Most people in the countryside near Sam Neua expressed enthusiasm for the end of a vice that has plagued the hill tribes of Laos for generations. Unlike in Burma and Afghanistan, however, most of the poppies grown in Laos have been for the consumption of addicted farmers, not for export. |^|

“Blacksmith Sy Kham managed to give up this year on his second attempt after officials threatened him with jail. "Going without was hard, like something was eating my bones and making me vomit," he said. "But now I feel healthier, and we grow rice instead of opium so my family has more to eat." His village of Hua Moun had 24 addicts, but communal pressure forced all of them to give up the drug. |^|

“Under government pressure, opium mafias are believed to have pushed deep into the jungles in areas near the Vietnam border like Nong Haet, in Xieng Khuang province, far from the government's reach. Critics claim the government has used heavy-handed methods, coercing villagers in poppy-growing areas into resettling in faraway camps. Charles Alton, a consultant for the U.N. Development Program, reported last year that hill-tribe people in resettlement villages were suffering from rice shortages and disease, including malaria, gastrointestinal problems and parasites. Death rates in the new villages were almost four times the national average, aid groups say. |^|

“Since the ruling Communist Party declared at the Seventh Party Congress in 2001 that Laos would be made opium-free, doctors have made a concerted effort to treat sometimes unwilling addicts; villages have come under pressure to browbeat opium smokers into giving up their habits; and poppy fields have been cut down or uprooted. Old-style Communist Party zeal was brought into the battle: The Youth Pioneers, a Communist version of the Scouts, have championed poppy eradication. |^|

“Ya, whose teeth are still stained black from smoking the narcotic resin, acknowledged that opium had been a scourge. Several addicts she knew had plunged their families into desperate financial straits by selling their prized pigs for a smoke. But she admitted to more mixed feelings in her own case. "Nothing else works for my back trouble, and nothing else gets me to sleep," she said a little dreamily. "The white pills the doctor gave me are useless. I do miss my opium." |^|

Producing Rubber Rather Than Opium in Laos

In 2011, Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP wrote: “The poppies that once dotted the fields around the village of Hathyao in mountainous northern Laos have disappeared, replaced by rows of trees prized for their milky white sap. In the 1990s, opium was the local cash crop. Today it is rubber.[Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, May 3, 2011]

“For some villagers, like the 1,500 ethic minority Hmong of Hathyao, rubber has provided a new way of life. In the mid-1990s, anticipating the eradication policy, the residents went to China to learn how to plant the trees. In 2002, after the first trees matured, they started to tap them for latex, used to make natural rubber that is in strong demand by Chinese industry.

"Before 1994, a lot of families grew opium, but a lot of people were addicted. It was not healthy," said Wasiu, the deputy head of the village, which harvested five tonnes of latex in 2010. "After we started sending rubber to China, our life was better. We could save money in the bank, have big trucks and motorbikes, send our children to school and build new brick houses," he added.

“Other villagers followed in their footsteps with mass planting of rubber trees, but many have struggled to achieve the same level of success. Farmers must wait seven years after planting a rubber tree before they can start tapping the precious white sap, during which time the village grows poorer. Some farmers therefore have been forced to relinquish their land to foreign companies and work as ordinary rubber tappers instead.

“There are also "considerable environmental risks" posed by rubber plantations, said Schuhbeck, citing water shortages, soil erosion and the use of pesticides and other chemical products. In the nearby village of Nam Dy, the effect is already visible. "Now we have money, but we also have problems with water. The river is very low. It is the impact of growing rubber trees," said the 60-year-old village chief Tongsi Tangchaosan.But, unlike some, he added that he has no plan to return to poppy cultivation. "It is necessary to grow rubber trees because we cannot do anything else," he said.”

Success of Laos’s Anti-Opium Campaign in the 2000s

The opium poppy eradication campaign launched in 2002 is trumpeted by the Laotian authorities and the United Nations as a success. Areas set aside for poppies fell from 27,000 hectares at the peak in 1998 to 1,500 in 2007, according to an estimate from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

According to a Bangkok Post editorial: “The quiet nation of Laos has proved again it never pays to underestimate the humble, by setting something of a world standard for eliminating the illicit drugs trade. Since pledging in 2001 to eradicate opium by the end of 2005, Laos has largely achieved the goal. The country has had aid from Thailand and support from the United Nations, but deserves all of the credit for essentially wiping out opium growing, heroin production and illegal narcotics trafficking in four years, just as it said. Just as importantly, it has been open about its plans and receptive to foreign aid and advice. [Source: Bangkok Post, July 26, 2005]

“A report from Vientiane said that as of May 2005 the opium fields were history in nine of the 11 provinces where they flourished in 2001. At the beginning of 2004, the country had 10,000 hectares (62,500 rai) growing poppies. As of January 2005, just before the main opium harvest, poor farmers still were raising opium on 3,000 hectares or less than 20,000 rai in just two provinces. They are Xayaboury in the Lao northwest bordering on Chiang Rai, Phayao and Nan of Thailand, and Xieng Khuang, a largely isolated province in central Laos northeast of the capital, Vientiane.

“The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has done most of the work in informing the world of the Lao progress, but the government has done most of the heavy lifting. It has used carrots to entice farmers to stop growing poppies, but on occasion has drawn criticism for failing to provide fast, effective help in suggesting and boosting alternative crops. The northern part of the country, where opium has traditionally been the major cash crop because of a lack of roads and small markets, has been difficult to police. Drug traffickers, particularly Burmese from the Wa United State Army, have fought the Vientiane government efforts to wipe out the opium problem. Soubanh Srithirat of Laos’s National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision said that Laos intended to subscribe to all domestic and international drug control measures listed by the UN General Assembly's special meeting on drugs.

Despite some early problems, Vientiane has scrambled to make a credible anti-drug programme, and not simply a crackdown on the two illegal narcotics and the farmers who grow them. For example, the government has set up projects to help the country's drug addicts, as well as the affected farmers. Sithat Sisongkham of the Lao National Drug Control and Suppression Department admitted this month that Laos still has 22,000 opium addicts, although down from 28,000 at the end of 2003. Vientiane city has established rehabilitation and education programmes down to the district level, and other provinces are expected to follow suit. Perhaps most importantly, the drug control commission has undertaken efforts to provide what it calls a more sustainable form of agricultural activity for farmers forced to give up the opium habit. In fact, as in Thailand, farmers have been enthusiastic about getting out of the semi-slavery of opium cultivation. The problem has come in finding alternative crops.

Drug-Fighting Effort by the Laos Government in the 2010s

In July 2011, The Economist reported: “The new prime minister of Laos, Thongsing Thammavong, has taken the country's drugs problem into his own hands with good Communist brio. At an event co-sponsored by the government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in late June Mr Thongsing, wearing a business suit and wielding a giant torch, helped put fire to an enormous stash of seized opium, heroin and cannabis. Three weeks later the prime minister reinforced his message by concluding a co-operation agreement with Myanmar, Laos's big neighbour to the north-west, on the prosecution of drug trafficking. Although official policy in the Lao People's Democratic Republic is usually kept opaque, it is easy to see that the government, led by a man eager to make an impression—is gearing up for a new stage in the war against drug producers and traffickers. In recent years it had shifted to the back foot; the production of both opium and methamphetamine is on the rise. [Source: The Economist , July 19, 2011 -]

“Mr Thongsing's very public involvement in the drug war indicates that the Laotian government is readying itself for another crackdown. The speed with which it set about destroying poppy fields a decade ago indicates that it will be a formidable foe. Its dormancy since then however seems to have given the drug industry a chance to evolve and wise up. Whether it does the country any good or not, Mr Thongsing should have plenty of torch-brandishing ahead of him.” -

Laos Villages Struggle Without Opium

In 2011, Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP wrote: “The UN recognises that poverty and a lack of alternative income, coupled with the high value of the drug and relaxation of controls, have led some communities to return to opium production. Poppy cultivation areas doubled in size between 2007 and 2010, reaching 3,000 hectares, which is still well below the figure for the 1990s. [Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, May 3, 2011]

“Some villages in Laos are finding it hard to kick the opium habit and have returned to poppy cultivation in a setback to the country's efforts to stamp out opium production. "The poppy was a culture adapted to the area, and there was an important market," said Dominique Van der Borght, a local representative with the charity Oxfam Belgium."Laos should have defended its right to opium production" at least for the pharmaceutical industry, he said.

“Eradication of the poppy fields has had a significant impact on local communities. "The rich families which made a living from opium left and the social fabric has disappeared," Van der Borght said. He believes foreign donors, notably the United States, pushed the Communist government in this direction, but says the majority of the programmes to encourage people to switch from opium to other crops "have been a failure".

"The challenge was for a long time that eradication was achieved quicker than the income replacement," said Adrian Schuhbeck, a development expert with a German-backed agency in northeastern Louang Namtha province. While production has certainly plunged, it has been a high price to pay for many villagers who have struggled to adapt. "There has been a lack of alternative development assistance reaching all farmers in the former opium growing areas," said Leik Boonwaat, country representative for the UN drug agency. "That has probably helped persuade farmers to go back to growing opium," he said. But "the argument that they are poorer now does not really hold true. They always were poor. But in areas where we have been able to provide alternative assistance, we can see the improvement," he added.

Return of Opium to Laos

In 2011, The Economist reported: “It now appears that the Laotian government became complacent almost immediately upon declaring victory. Opium production has grown every year since 2007, and in 2010 the area under cultivation leapt by 58 percent year-on-year, according to a recent UNODC report. The government has proved its ability to locate and destroy poppy fields, but its dedication to disbursing aid—such as might motivate the erstwhile growers to pursue other livelihoods—is more questionable. UNODC believes that less than 10 percent of the villages declared opium-free have received funds promised for growing alternative crops. The effects of this failure were exacerbated by the global financial crisis. Weaker demand led to a fall in farm-gate prices for legal crops, while higher input costs raised prices for household goods. As standards of living declined, the reasons to return to poppies grew stronger. [Source: The Economist , July 19, 2011 -]

“Unhelpfully, the spot price of opium has also continued to rise. As expected, a reduction in local cultivation pushed up domestic prices, from around $250 per kilogram in 2002 to almost five times that in 2008. However, even as local supply began to rise again, the price continued to increase, reaching $1,670 per kilo in 2010. Why this is happening is unclear. One theory is that the drug remains in short supply locally because traffickers have opened new supply routes, taking advantage of new road links to China; the size of its import market is almost totally unknown. -

Land devoted to opium production in Laos grew 66 percent in 2011, albeit from a small base, according to the report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. [Source: Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2012]

Methamphetamines in Laos

There have been unsubstantiated reports of domestic methamphetamine production. In terms of usage there is growing domestic methamphetamine problem (2007). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Methamphetamines are a serious problem among those that can afford to do it in Laos. Known as yaba (“yaa baa” , yaaba or “crazy drug”), the drug became abused after it was popularized in Thailand. In the 1990s and early 2000s much of the yaba consumed in Laos was produced in Burma for consumption in Thailand and “fell off the load in Laos.”

In 2006, Reuters reported: “Fresh from declaring victory in its ''war on opium'', Laos' communist rulers now face the threat of growing methamphetamine use among its youth. Unlike opium, which urban Lao see as an ''old man's drug'', methamphetamines — which cost around 1.50 dollar a tablet — have found favour with youngsters who want to be alert, confident and slim. First emerging in the mid-1990s, methamphetamines are also a harder drug to fight off than opium, which often leaves users listless after an initial rush of euphoria, said centre director Ugaow Gaowarawong. ''Methamphetamines are much more scary,'' he said. ''It messes with your head and it's hard to shake. [Source: Reuters, May 14, 2006]

In 2011, the Economist reported: “Production of yaba in hidden factories in the Golden Triangle rocketed while opium production shrank in the early 2000s, and it has now supplanted opium as the consumer's drug of choice in Laos. It finds a ready market in the growing cities as well as in the countryside. According to UNODC, the number of yaba pills seized in Laos is rising sharply, from 1.3m in 2007 to 2.3m in 2009...The ease and speed with which yaba factories can be assembled and relocated, combined with Laos' porous borders, makes it a cinch to evade the police. Unlike poppy plots, meth labs are not easily spotted by helicopter surveillance. So it is difficult to determine whether police are making inroads or whether factories are simply scaling up production. Nor is it possible to tell if seized pills originated in Laos or only indicted midway along their journey to markets in Europe, America and elsewhere in Asia. [Source: The Economist , July 19, 2011]

In 2005, Nick Meo wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “A new problem looms: yaaba, an amphetamine produced in illegal factories in Burma, is becoming the young people's drug of choice, according to the U.N. drug office, fueling an increase in petty crime in the sleepy capital, Vientiane. Worried officials fear that they will soon have as large an amphetamine epidemic as Thailand, where the U.N. agency says there are about 2.4 million yaaba users and 500,000 hard-core yaaba addicts. A survey by Laotian education authorities found that 17 percent of students in Vientiane used yaaba, up from 4 percent three years ago. [Source: Nick Meo, San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2005 |^|]

Amphetamine Users and Addicts in Laos

A study in the early 2000s found that 5 percent of young people between 12 and 21 years old were yaabaa users. Yaa baa is bought in pill form on the streets, in bars and even at school. Most users crush the pills and smoke the powder with a pipe or through a straw over tinfoil. Among yaba users opium is regarded as an “old man drug” is mainly for minority groups and old people. “It's not for the young people who want to go out,'' one drug official said.

In 2006, Reuters reported: “The unceremoniously named ''Treatment and Vocational Training of Drug Users Center'', just south of the capital, Vientiane, is a case in point. Here, at Laos's biggest drug rehabilitation centre, 565 Lao have come from all over the country. Almost all are addicted to methamphetamines. Malee, 15, looks like a typical teenager in red Mickey Mouse T-shirt and ponytail. But she has been arrested twice, both times for smoking speed she bought with money stolen from her parents. ''The minute I got any money, I would run out and spend it on drugs,'' she said, estimating she blew the equivalent of 100 dollars a week on drugs in a country where three-quarters of people live on less than 2 dollars a day. ''I tried everything I could, even heroin. My friends would bring me these drugs and all our worries would be gone. All I ever wanted to do was get out of the life I had.'' [Source: Reuters, May 14, 2006]

Many yaa baa addicts are from prosperous families. They include sons and daughters of senior officials, deputy ministers and even a member of the Politburo. One official told AP his son had gone through detox three times and once sold his pants for the equivalent of $2 to buy two yaa baa pills. His wife gave up a university teaching job to care for him. The official said, “We have to have someone with him all the time to check he’s not using it.”

Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have recently embraced or long resorted to compulsory detoxification and punitive detention amid concern over a recent, sharp rise in methamphetamine use. Detox programs are understaffed, poorly-equipped and have waiting lists. Those that are fortunate enough to get in are forced to lie in wooden beds while receiving an IV with vitamins and Valium. Even then they endure tremors and hallucinations. Many relapse after they get out. The public-run programs are like prisons. Addicts are simply incarcerated and prevented from using drugs but are not given any medical treatment or help. The United Nations provided $150,000 to establish a proper clinic for addicts. Drug awareness programs have been introduced to the school curriculum.

Concern’s About Laos’s Anti-Drug Campaign

''Prevention and control of trafficking and abuse of heroin and methamphetamines are some of the next challenges that face the government. Laos is at a critical juncture,'' said Leik Boonwaat of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). ''Without urgent appropriate assistance the successes already achieved could be easily reversed. Increased, trafficking of heroin and methamphetamine will lead to increased crime, corruption, violence, misery and poverty,'' he said. [Source: Reuters, May 14, 2006]

“Still, the lack of a sustainable livelihood for farmers could induce as many as half of the former opium producers to return to planting poppies, the UNODC's Leik said. Methamphetamine use could also grow as traffickers move beyond youngsters to other sections of the population in both urban and rural areas, he said. However, drug rehabilitation officials are optimistic the success in tackling opium will be duplicated against methamphetamines, pointing out that the country's poverty may actually end up saving it. ''In the past two years, we had 700-800 people here, most addicted to methamphetamines,'' said centre director Ugaow. ''Now we have around 500 so far this year, much less. It's expensive and hard to find. That is helpful.''

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Last updated May 2014

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