In many respects, opium is an ideal crop to grow in the uplands of southeast Asia. As Renard wrote in his 2001 account of Opium Reduction in Thailand:

Poppy grew well in the hills despite the poor tropical soils there. It required no advanced production technology nor did it need agricultural inputs such as chemical fertilizers or pesticides. … Furthermore, opium as a crop has advantages in terms of marketing and handling. No cold storage or sophisticated protection against spoilage was required. (page 3)

Given that it is such a well-suited crop it is unsurprising that opium eradication schemes, if not carefully managed to provide viable livelihood alternatives, can have profound social impacts. Some of these impacts, in Laos and Burma, have been highlighted in a recent report by the Transnational Institute:

A significant decline in opium production in Burma and Laos, which has been heralded as a major success for international drug control policy, is having a devastating effect on farmers and is triggering worrying consequences for drug users according to a new report …

The report, Withdrawal Symptoms: Changes in the Southeast Asian Drugs Market, draws on hundreds of interviews with farmers, users and traders. It finds that harm reduction and alternative livelihood policies must be in place before any opium reduction if negative health and development impacts are to be avoided.

‘The rapid decline has caused major suffering among former poppy growing communities in Burma and Laos, making it difficult to characterise it as a “success story”‘ explains Martin Jelsma, co-author of the report.

For drug users, higher heroin prices and a lack of health services have led not to a reduction in consumption, but to shifts in consumer behaviour. These include shifts from smoking to injecting heroin which, as many users share needles, is one of the main drivers of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region. The methamphetamine market is expanding rapidly and users replacing heroin with other pharmaceutical drugs also face new health risks.

‘Drug control policies should be development-oriented and concentrate first on offering alternative livelihoods to opium farmers’ says Tom Kramer, co-author of the report. ‘Similarly, drug users should not be treated as criminals. Instead, what is needed are improved harm reduction services and more humane drug laws.’

The full report is available here.