By Kyle Taylor, MIPP Graduate (2017)

Sai ba dee! I have been in Lao PDR for over two months now working at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Lao PDR Office in Vientiane. The UNODC is currently working with the central government of Lao PDR and national partners to confront the various challenges relating to border security, corruption, drugs and human trafficking. In particular, drug control has long been a challenge in Lao PDR.

Opium cultivation developed in Lao PDR during the colonial period. By the 1990s, the country ranked as one of the world’s largest illicit opium producers. At the same time, Lao PDR had one of the highest opium addiction rates in the world. However, and due to the central government’s commitment to drug prevention and drug use treatment and re-integration, from 1998 to 2005, opium cultivation was effectively reduced by an estimated 94 per cent and opium addiction by 80 per cent.

Illicit opium cultivation remains a primary component of the drug economy in the Golden Triangle and East and Southeast Asia. Although progress has been made in the region with recent political commitments to interdict and combat drug trafficking, opium continues to be produced at high levels. In 2016, it was estimated that north of Myanmar and Lao PDR had over 60,000 hectares under cultivation producing 20 per cent of global opium supply. Opium elimination remains very delicate and the central government of Lao PDR has continued to prioritize the elimination of opium in the country. The cultivation and production of illicit opium is closely associated with poverty and food insecurity. Difficult living conditions, household debt, and poor infrastructure and market access are all contributing factors to opium farming. Opium farming is essential for villagers trapped in poverty because it provides a means of subsistence, and can do so relatively quickly and easily compared to other cash crops.

Unlike illicit opium production, which is deeply rooted in poverty and food insecurity, the emerging drug problems in Lao PDR arise from transnational organized crime. Since the early 1990s, transnational trafficking of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), heroin and other illicit drugs significantly increased, and resulted in Lao PDR becoming a transit point for drugs trafficked in the region.

Interdicting and combating drug trafficking in the region remains difficult due to the remoteness and porousness of many border areas, and lack of capacity, infrastructure, equipment, information management and communications. There is also no doubt that drug production in the country flourishes in areas were isolation and poverty are rooted, and where rural farmers are unable to obtain sufficient income from licit activities due to lack of market access.

The UNODC has been a driving force in supporting alternative development (AD) projects in Lao PDR over the past ten years to introduce alternative cash crops to compete with the income from opium cultivation. One of the projects I am currently working on involves working with local authorities in Houaphanh Province to introduce coffee as an alternative cash crop to opium. In addition to introducing coffee, the AD project in Houaphanh Province also works with local authorities to treat drug users.

Outside the AD project, I was recently honoured by the Minister of Public Security with an invitation to participate in the Burning Ceremony of Seized Drugs to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the National Day Against Drug Abuse and Trafficking. Among the guests were Buddhist clergy, the Deputy Minister of Lao PDR, various Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Party and State leaders at different levels in Vientiane, Diplomatic Corps, and International Organization representatives.  The drugs that were burned that day were ATS, cannabis, methamphetamine hydrochloride (crystal meth), rhodiarome, caffeine and other powders that are used as precursors, reagents, and solvents to make illicit drugs.

I am really enjoying my time here in Lao PDR, and I cannot wait to see what waits ahead.