By Andrew R.C. Marshall
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A "dramatic" drop in opium cultivation in Myanmar underscored a regional boom in demand for illegal synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, which many Asian countries are struggling to combat, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday.
The area under opium poppy cultivation dropped by a quarter between 2015 and 2017, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report released on Wednesday.
"The drop in opium production is welcome, but it is not a victory," Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC's chief in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told Reuters.
"It appears to confirm that the shift in the regional drug market to synthetic drugs is well underway, and that the opium economy is being disrupted."
China and most Southeast Asian countries have reported growing demand for methamphetamine - a highly addictive synthetic drug also known as speed, shabu and yaba - and the Philippines is waging a bloody "war on drugs" to tackle it.
Meanwhile, regional demand for heroin, which is derived from opium poppies, has remained stable or decreased, with many younger drug users preferring methamphetamine, according to UNODC data.
The UNODC estimated that Myanmar's Shan and Kachin states cultivated 41,000 hectares of opium poppy in 2017, a 25 percent drop from the 54,500 hectares reported in its last survey in 2015.
For the previous decade, opium cultivation had increased annually before stabilizing at high levels, according to UNODC data.
The area under cultivation in Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer, hit a record high of 328,000 hectares in 2017, the UNODC said last month.
Myanmar's interior minister, Kyaw Swe, said in a statement released by the UNODC that his government was "pleased to see progress" and would support programmes that provide alternative livelihoods to opium-growing communities.
Myanmar is the source of most of Southeast Asia's methamphetamine, which is mostly produced in lawless border regions outside the government's control.
Douglas also said it was "reasonable to assume" that Asian organised crime groups were making or planning to make fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more potent and profitable than heroin.
In October, President Donald Trump said "the flood of cheap and deadly fentanyl" in the United States was fuelling a public health emergency of opioid addiction and death.
"People like to stretch profits in any business, and fentanyl is the ultimate profit-stretcher," said Douglas. "You can cut out the poppy farmers completely."
Growing opium poppies employs or provides incomes for hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar, most of them in remote, mountainous areas of Shan and Kachin states.
Cultivation and production of opium poppies continued to flourish at 2015 levels in conflict-plagued areas of those states, which remained a "safe haven for those who run the drug trade", said Douglas.
Government troops have been fighting insurgencies by various ethnic minority guerrilla groups for decades, and both sides have been implicated in the drug trade.
According to the UNODC survey, opium cultivation plummeted in 2017 despite the government scaling back its poppy-eradication efforts.
Myanmar destroyed 3,533 hectares of opium poppies in 2017, down from 13,450 hectares in 2015.
Its giant neighbour China remained the largest market for the heroin made from Myanmar's opium.
But China was also reporting what Douglas called "a significant shift in market dynamics", with demand for heroin dropping alongside rising demand for methamphetamine.
"The regional drug market is changing, and governments need to change how they deal with it," he said.
He urged countries to increase their focus on synthetic drugs and the precursor chemicals used to make them, and to do more to tackle demand through prevention campaigns and voluntary, community-based rehabilitation programmes.
(Reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Robert Birsel)