Yaba, the 'crazy medicine' of East Asia

19 May 2008 - Yaba, or 'crazy medicine' in Thai, is a tablet form of methamphetamine, and a very powerful stimulant. Introduced to East Asia during World War II to enhance soldiers' performance, methamphetamine has become increasingly popular in East Asia, particularly among young people. Yaba is now the main form of methamphetamine abused in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia as well as Viet Nam and Myanmar, where it is typically manufactured.

Mixed with caffeine and usually 30 per cent methamphetamine, the drug is a central nervous system stimulant. Although it comes in a pill form, yaba is usually crushed and smoked. Users get an intense 'burst' of energy, followed by increased activity, decreased appetite and a general sense of well-being. Once the effects wear off, the user 'crashes' and experiences prolonged periods of sleep and depression.

Like other forms of methamphetamine, long-term abuse of yaba can produce strong dependence. Users develop tolerance and require increasing amounts of the drug to feel the same effects. Excessive doses can result in convulsions, seizures and death from respiratory failure, stroke or heart failure. The drug can trigger aggressive and violent behaviour, and psychiatric disorders have also been associated with its use.

Traditionally used by occupational workers such as truck drivers, the use of yaba in East Asia shifted into youth culture about 10 years ago. Starting in Thailand and spreading into Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam, yaba consumers in the region are now estimated in the millions. Recently, the drug has been spreading toward the Indian subcontinent; in 2007, a record 1,200,000 yaba tablets were confiscated in Bangladesh where there is a potentially very large market. 

The development and spread of yaba in the region has been opportunistic. As UNODC expert Jeremy Douglas explains, "it is a drug that is cheap to manufacture and cheap to purchase. You introduce it somewhere and develop a market fairly quickly because it is cheap and highly addictive." With one tablet costing as little as US$ 1 in Cambodia to US$ 5 in Bangkok, the drug is very easy to produce if in possession of the necessary precursor materials. "You can have labs producing 10,000 tablets per hour hidden anywhere", he adds.

Unlike geographically confined, crop-based drugs, such as opium in Afghanistan, synthetic drugs like yaba can be produced anywhere in the world where there are weaknesses in law enforcement and in precursor chemical regulations. The portable and clandestine nature of production also makes it difficult to monitor and assess the situation systematically. "At the moment the information base is quite fractured", says Douglas. "In some parts of the world, we know it is there - we just don't know the extent to which it is."

To help address the issue, UNODC is launching the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analysis, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme. Set up in hotspots and key priority regions of the world, SMART teams will assess data and information, thus enabling countries to strategically plan prevention and law enforcement responses. 

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Audio: Interview with UNODC Expert Jeremy Douglas (3:47)

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