Raw opium is prepared for smoking in an opium field in western Myanmar in this December 28, 2014 file photo. Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun
SEE LINK FOR PICTURES
Falling Chinese demand is driving down opium prices and production in Myanmar, but the UN's drug agency continues to blame the wrong and protect the actual actors profiting from the illicit crop For the past 20 years, China has been the main market for Myanmar's rich bounty of illegally produced opium and its potent derivative heroin.
But recent declines in both drugs' prices and production in Myanmar's section of the opium-growing Golden Triangle region suggest changing consumption patterns in China, including a shift towards more synthetic drugs such as ice, cocaine and potentially the locally made opioid fentanyl.
According to a recent United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) survey, areas under opium cultivation dropped to 37,300 hectares in 2018, down from the 41,000 hectares in 2017.
Total opium production, meanwhile, dropped from 550 to 510 metric tons, the same survey showed. That equates to around 50 tons of heroin, as it takes 10 kilograms of opium plus chemicals to produce a kilogram of the more potent drug.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Myanmar's opium production boomed with average annual yields of 1,000 tons or more. Until now, high Chinese demand has driven Myanmar's illicit bumper crops.
According to statistics compiled by Chin Ko-lin and Sheldon Zhang, two US-based academics and experts on the Golden Triangle drug trade, China had 1,545,000 registered drug addicts in 2010, with 1,065,000 of those addicted to heroin.
The actual figure, as most addicts are not registered with the government, could have been as many as 4-5 million, according to other independent researchers.
China previously marked the United Nations Anti-Drugs Day, June 26, with mass executions of drug offenders. While that symbolic policy has changed in recent years, China still executes annually an unknown high number of drug offenders.
Heroin accounted for 65-75% of all seized narcotics in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while methamphetamines, or ice, and other drugs did not figure prominently in the official statistics.
The number of officially registered drug users is now more than two million, of whom 1.5 million are addicted to synthetic drugs, not heroin.
China has produced significant quantities of ice and fentanyl could be added to drugs that are now being consumed locally, experts suggest.
Fentanyl is manufactured legally in Chinese pharmaceutical factories, and is exported to countries such as the United States, where abuse has reached epidemic proportions.
Experts believe the consumption shift is in line with China's wider development into a more modern nation, where "old" drugs like opium and heroin are no longer in vogue.
That also apparently includes rising demand for South American-made cocaine. Last year, Chinese police seized more than 1.3 metric tons of cocaine in a raid in Shenzhen, situated opposite to Hong Kong.
The China Daily newspaper reported on September 14, 2018, that cocaine was being smuggled from South America to major ports on China's east coast before being moved to Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau by sea.