Meth Seizures Up 80,000 Percent in Bangladesh as Candy-Coated Yaba Pills Take Asia by Storm

Bags of methamphetamine pills seized by the Thai narcotic police department are seen on display before being incinerated in Ayutthaya on September 17, 2011. Yingluck Shinawatra has announced the government will begin an urgent anti-drugs campaign. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

The language of “dramatic increases” and “soaring crime rates” common to public policy discussions seems inadequate for the meth epidemic in Bangladesh, where drug seizures in rural Islamic communities have increased by eighty thousand percent over the past nine years.

“In the past decade, meth pills flowing into Bangladesh went from a trickle to a tsunami,” reports GlobalPost Investigations. “Just nine years back, police were seizing only about 35,000 pills per year. You could comfortably fit all of that inside a backpack. Annual seizures have since swelled to 29 million pills, an increase of more than 80,000 percent. That’s enough meth to tweak out everyone in Texas – with plenty left over for Nebraska.”

The drug of choice is a little pink pill called “yaba” that combines methamphetamines with caffeine. Yaba is a Thai phrase that means “crazy medicine” or “madness drug.” Side effects can include paranoia and violent psychosis.

A 2015 report from Vice News explained that yaba began as a favorite drug of popular entertainers and rich youth in the mid-2000s. Originally, it was mostly produced in Myanmar and smuggled across the border into Bangladesh, but domestic production has increased in recent years. Consumption has risen to an estimated two million pills a day.

Bangladeshi police are seizing so many of these pills that they had to improvise a quick and easy way to dispose of them. They came up with the idea of dumping the pills in a hole in the ground, then melting them with confiscated whiskey.

GlobalPost Investigations attributes the problem to a combination of poorly-trained, poorly-compensated, easily-bribed police and a huge number of bored young customers living in the marshlands. The authorities are so indifferent to the drug trade that smugglers scarcely bother to conceal their contraband anymore. It is not just corruption and ineptitude paralyzing the police. They are not sure they would win a fight with heavily-armed drug traffickers if they intervened.

Many customers rely on the yaba pills to enhance their performance at hard labor or ability to concentrate on academic tasks, rather than seeking a recreational high. GPI talked to one fisherman who said meth was a better way to stay warm and keep working hard on the cold seas than drinking booze.

Another key factor in the rising popularity of yaba is that Muslim customers believe it to be less immoral than alcohol under Islamic law. Alcohol is illegal in Bangladesh and harder to smuggle than tiny yaba pills.

In March, Reuters reported that Bangladesh was preparing to ban the cold medication pseudoephedrine, better known as Sudafed, which is so widely used as an ingredient by meth cooks that Americans can no longer purchase it over the counter.

It was rumored that Bangladesh was responding to international pressure after a 600 percent increase in pseudoephedrine imports over the past five years. A single $67 keg of the medicine was said to provide enough material for 400,000 yaba pills, with a street value of $626,000. Bangladeshi officials complained that dodgy chemical plants in India were pumping out a vast quantity of pseudoephedrine for smugglers to transport into Bangladesh.

The ban on counter sales does not appear to have done much to slow down meth abuse in the U.S., unfortunately, greatly inconveniencing the sick for very little social gain.

Another factor in the Bangladesh meth epidemic is the wave of Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing from Myanmar. The police say Rohingya refugees are often used as drug mules, especially young people. The parents of the accused say they were forced into the drug trade because they have few other prospects for employment, either in Myanmar or Bangladesh. There have been complaints from Rohingya that Bangladeshi villagers are falsely accusing them of participating in the yaba trade in a bid to drive the refugees away.

Myanmar remains one of the largest producers of narcotics in the world. In February, a Buddhist monk was busted for hiding over four million pills in his monastery.

The U.S. Justice Department reports that yaba has made its way to the United States, emerging as “a drug of abuse in Asian communities” and “becoming increasingly popular at raves, techno parties, and other venues.” Dealers are adding candy coating to the pills to make them more appealing to young customers, a tactic also employed to market yaba to children in Thailand.

One of the nicknames for yaba in the United States is “Nazi speed,” a reference to the origin of the methamphetamine-caffeine mixture as a stimulant for Nazi soldiers in World War II.


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