Donald Macintyre returned to UK screens a fortnight ago. Last week, he
travelled to Thailand to uncover the menacing prevalence of the dance floor
drug, Methamphetamine, known locally as 'Yaba' (pron. Yar-Bar). His
journey took him from the traffic-clogged Khao San Road in Bangkok (made famous
by Alex Garland
in his book, 'The Beach'), to the dense jungles of Burma as he strived to trace
the drug from its dealers to its producers.
Methamphetamine was invented by the Nazis in the 1930s and was intended for
use by soldiers so they could fight for days without sleep. Methamphetamine is a
derivative of synthetic amphetamines such as speed and the drug's main
ingredients include salt, distilled cold medicines, petrol and lithium.
Methamphetamine's production is supposedly easy, and its ingredients readily
available. Its transformation from the icy cold killing fields of the Eastern
Front to its adoption as a recreational drug is uncertain but it's a Nazi legacy
that many wish had died with Hitler. Street methamphetamine is referred to by
many names, such as 'crystal', 'meth' and 'chalk'.
Methamphetamine is incredibly addictive; regular use of the drug has been
linked to lung and kidney disorders, hallucinations and paranoia. Use of the
drug causes the brain to flood with a substance called dopamine, causing huge
exhilaration but then terrible lows. The use of 'meth' has, in the past, been attributed to a high proportion of Thailand's murders.
In Thailand it is known simply as 'Yaba' and its increasingly wide-spread use
in Bangkok has wreaked havoc with the Thai police force who is struggling to
contain the problem. Yaba abuse, in Thailand, has reached epidemic proportions;
in 2001, Thai authorities estimated that over 2.5 million people were regular
users and its ever-increasing availability, particular to students, means that
number is increasing no end.
Armed with a hidden camera, and a team which included narcotics experts
tracking his every move, Donald Macintyre took to the bustling streets of
Bangkok in search of Yaba. Within moments he had located a Yaba source and was
driven across the city to meet with a shady-looking drug pusher. He found Yaba
similarly available at a bike-taxi rank ran by fresh-faced yet stony-eyed
teenagers but Bangkok's stringent drug laws made it too risky to score on the
In his book,
`The Beach', Alex Garland vividly describes a beautiful well-kept secret -
white sands circling a lagoon hidden from the sea, coral gardens and freshwater
falls surrounded by jungle. These days,
Phi Phi Le Island
is one of Thailand's most frequented party islands, swamped yearly by
thrill-seekers hoping to relive the utopian bliss brought to life by Garland.
Phi Phi Le Island is also a hotbed of drug consumption and an ideal place to
report on Thailand's new drugs plague. Macintyre arrived with his crew by boat
in search of Yaba. His first score, three crude looking brown pills, turned out
to be nothing more than Ecstasy - he could have stayed at home to get that.
Sauntering along the beach, weaving in and out of drugged-up revellers, one of
the Macintyre team came across his next source. A slight-looking Thai woman
greeted him and reacted warmly to his enquiries about Yaba but she was clearly
afraid (Phi Phi Le Island is rumoured to be swarming with undercover cops).
'Yaba, Yaba!' she shouted, trying her hardest to project her voice over the
loud, thumping music. After indicating he would like to obtain some Yaba pills,
the woman took him inside and beckoned him to smoke with her to which he
politely declined. He did, however, film her smoking and observed the dismal
look which shrouded her face. For her, Yaba smoking had become more of an act of
necessity than pleasure.
The pill obtained from this dicey transaction, small and red in appearance,
bared the ubiquitous stamp of its Burmese producers -
The Wa - an insurgent rebel group granted substantial autonomy by the
government in Rangoon. Burma has always been infamous for its drug manufacturing
and is understood to be Asia's largest producer of opium, which eventually gets
changed into heroin destined for the streets of London or New York. Whilst
publicly the Burmese government seems to take a hard line on drug manufacturing,
as Macintyre discovered, production of Yaba continues openly with the apparent
full knowledge and backing of those in Rangoon. This year alone, 800 million
Yaba pills are estimated to be produced in Wa-held laboratories along the
At this point in time, Burma is still entrenched in a civil war which has
been raging for over 25 years. The Burmese government is extremely hostile to
Western media intrusion and the area along the border with Thailand is
particularly forbidden. Crossing into Thailand, Macintyre rendezvoused with a
small rebel group in opposition to the government. Hacking their way through
thick, dense jungle in sweltering heat to avoid government road-blocks, the BBC
crew followed the heavily-armed rebels to their stronghold. There they were
shown conclusive evidence of Burmese government involvement in the Yaba trade;
videos shot of soldiers caught carrying thousands of pills destined for Bangkok,
and of the huge drug-making facilities occupied by the Wa. A reconnaissance
mission to see the facilities for themselves provoked an angry response and a
skirmish ensued which culminated in both the rebels and BBC crew dodging bullets
and being pursued throughout the night by government troops.
Recently, enormous batches of Yaba have been intercepted making their way
into Europe by boat and plane. But as Macintyre discovered, Ecstasy still
remains the drug of choice in Britain's clubs. Ecstasy has received its fair
share of defamation in the press despite the fact that millions of people take
it every Friday night with no ill-effects. Is methamphetamine different? Is it
really the pernicious drug that we're led to believe? Or is it just
the latest victim of scaremongering anti-drug rhetoric in the continuing futile
war against drugs?