“Modern” Drug Use

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Opium is now hard to obtain in the Sing mountains. In the past, it was smoked by roughly 9 percent of the population, usually as a form of recreation, social courtesy (in hosting friends from other villages), or medicinal necessity (to lessen the symptoms of diarrhea, arthritis, tuberculosis, or the pain of childbirth). Most local Akha who habitually smoked opium have either undergone detox programs or simply have given it up “cold- turkey” style. But eradication of opium has not eliminated all drug problems. Huge amounts of amphetamines are produced in the Golden Triangle region (mostly in mobile factories in the upper Burma border areas). It is no coincidence that as opium use declined, amphetamine-type substances (ATS) usage has gone up among the Akha. This is not simply an issue of substitution, as amphetamines have radically different effects than narcotics.

     Rather, ATS usage has a broad appeal directly linked to value systems instilled by processes of modernization. Demand for methamphetamines has emerged in sync with changing value systems fostered by development trajectories. It occurs for very clear reasons, as Grinspoon and Hedblom note: “Amphetamine use results to a large extent from the pressure many people feel to keep up the increasingly hectic pace of modern life, to cope with a world in which nothing seems predictable but change—constantly accelerating change” (1975:288). In both cities and rural areas throughout mainland South�east Asia, ATS’s growing popularity is based both on its performance-�enhancing characteristics—it increases capitalist production among laborers, fishermen, truck drivers, stu�dents, and so on—and a growing demand for “designer drugs” among urban club-goers—perfect for conspicuous consumption (Lyttleton 2004).     Thus, even in the Muang Sing hills, ATS has become popular for its energizing effects. Rather than heroin use that exploded in neighboring countries after opium prohibition, the transition to methamphetamines is a highly charged sign of new social and material relations adopted by the Lao Akha as they enter into wage labor and capital accumulation. Taking ATS means being able to work harder and longer; it facilitates contract work where labor is hired for the job rather than by the hour. ATS has become a logical option if it means one can clear a field in fewer hours, earning money more quickly. ATS also has clear associations with modernity, whereas opium has been demonized as the drug of “backward” undeveloped “natives” characterized by lethargy and tardiness; ATS is also associated with energy, diligence, and productivity—characteristics of the “modern” citizen. Of course it is not so black and white. Heavy ATS use is also characterized by fits of paranoia and psychoses. Drug associated crime has gone up and there have been stringent attempts by authorities to suppress its trade and use. Thus while current levels of ATS use are declining in face of heightened control (and opium use retains a small constituency), drug-�use patterns remain a highly volatile indication of the stresses of social change. At the same time, new forms of social relationships arrive with a broader horizon of choices and become embedded in Akha lifestyles in more subtle ways.

 

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