Opium in Asia: A Global Epidemic

The opioid epidemic has reached massive proportions throughout the U.S. and many have failed to see the impact that the widespread drug use has had on the rest of the world. The truth is, the rising rate of addiction is a global problem.

Asia has experienced an increase in drug trafficking activity as well as reports of addiction. This poses an even greater problem for authorities trying to navigate international laws and boundaries.

The availability of prescription drugs combined with more potent illicit opioids has resulted in an increased rate of addiction. Few countries have the resources to fight this problem on every level, but all agree that educating the public on the realities of opioid addiction is key.

What are Opioids?

The term “opioid” refers to any medication or illicit drug that has been developed using the opium poppy. The primary use for opioid medications is in the treatment of acute or chronic pain associated with injury or a disease.

As these medications are metabolized they bind with the opioid receptors in the brain. This creates a rush of chemicals that can block the body’s perception of pain. These chemicals also create an extreme sense of euphoria and false confidence.

Common opioids include:

  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycontin
  • Oxycodone

There are a large number of variations on these medications and illicit drug combinations not listed. Prescription medications go by a number of different brand names such as Vicodin and Percocet, stressing the importance of patient education.

Why are Opioids So Addictive?

Opioids stimulate the release of “feel good” chemicals within the brain. By blocking the opioid receptors, these drugs create elevated levels of these chemicals resulting in extreme euphoria and a loss of pain.

Not everyone who uses opioids in the form of prescription medications is going to end up addicted. Addiction is a chronic disease that occurs when a person’s brain has an over exaggerated reward response to drugs and alcohol.

Some people are genetically and socially predisposed to addictive behaviors. They can start out taking doctor prescribed narcotics and end up using street drugs like heroin. Countries like Asia have much lower numbers of people prescribed these types of medications. There are stricter regulations on what doctors can and can’t do, and the long-term use of any narcotic is strongly discouraged.

This doesn’t stop the influx of street drugs that can fill the void left by the availability of prescription ones. The strength of opioids combined with their powerful psychoactive effects make them particularly attractive to the brain of an addict.

They stimulate such a huge chemical release that the body immediately associates the drugs with that reward. Under the right circumstances, a person can begin to crave opioids after only one use.

What perpetuates this addiction are the horrible withdrawal symptoms that begin as soon as levels of opioids start to fall within an addict’s body. They experience both physical and psychological discomfort, and many addicts continue using just to avoid this.

Once a person becomes chemically dependent on opioids, it’s extremely difficult for them to stop using without help.

A History of Opioids in Asia

Asia has largely been associated with opium and the cultivation of the opium poppy. In the 19th century, areas of China and Japan fought opium problems of epidemic proportions. With the introduction of strict regulations and active authorities, much of this problem was eradicated by the mid-20th century.

Unfortunately, Asia faced another type of epidemic when methamphetamine became popular for the first time in the 1950s. The drug saw another resurgence in the 1970s and has continued to grow in popularity since then. This has made it difficult for areas in Asia to deal with the opioid epidemic.

Myanmar continued to be the world’s largest producer of the opium poppy and saw an 80 percent decrease in poppy farming between 1998 and 2006. The recent demand for heroin globally has prompted Myanmar to begin expanding its growth of the opium poppy once again. This has brought the original Golden triangle back to life and has created new avenues for drug trafficking.

The U.S. and Asian Drug Trade

China has been particularly vocal in its disdain for the way that the US has dealt with the opioid epidemic. In a 2017 article released by CNN, a senior officer with the narcotics control Bureau of the Ministry of Public security, Yu Haibin, said “The biggest challenge China faces in cracking down on the smuggling of opioids is the huge demand from the US.”

This statement echoes the sentiment from other areas of Asia who believe that the huge amount of money generated by heroin sales to the US are responsible for an increase in their drug activity.

Recent reports indicate that China is currently the largest supplier of fentanyl, a drug more powerful than heroin, to the US. The US and Chinese governments have agreed to work together to place stricter controls on Digital Communications and potential shipping outlets used to get drugs out of the country.

This is only one source in the thriving opioid trade. Opium being grown in Myanmar is being refined in neighboring countries and then shipped out of poorly controlled ports in Thailand. Part of what makes the opioid epidemic so widespread is the number of resources used to supply the drugs.

Treatment in places like Myanmar and Vietnam can be compulsory and cruel. Addicts are effectively detained and placed in “treatment facilities” that mimic primitive work camps. Some can end up in these facilities for up to four years. And many don’t survive the experience.

These mandatory treatment programs will use physical violence, electroshock therapy, starvation, and other techniques that mirror stereotypical torture. Some of them consist of little more than tents or stick built huts with no bathrooms and very few necessities.

There are some modern treatment facilities throughout Asia that offer the same types of inpatient programs that are available in America. It’s simply a matter of where a person lives, and their financial circumstances. Countries like China and Vietnam also have extremely harsh penalties for those arrested for drug trafficking or use.

Even with all of these deterrents, the use and international trafficking of opioids continues to be a thriving practice throughout Asia. Governments are coming together to impose stricter international laws that will help them to focus on the growing problem with addiction in their own countries.

Helping the World Recover

Regardless of any ongoing international conflicts, we can all agree that addiction has become a common enemy. This disease has been further exacerbated by the availability of opioids, and we need to find a better way to fight back.

Stopping the drug trafficking between Asia and the US will drastically decrease the supply of opioids in both places. This will allow the US to set recovery in motion and to start focusing more of its resources on treatment programs.

International cooperation and more aggressive tactics have already started to make a difference. Addiction is a disease that doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t recognize borders, nationalities, or conflicts. Every person is equally susceptible to its affects, and it’s because of this that we’re coming together to find a better path to recovery.