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Opium-Plagued Thailand Fights New Problem: Pot

Times Staff Writer

The Border Patrol helicopter banked over a bend on the Mekong River, and a crewman jabbed his finger toward the wooded shore below.

“There,” he commanded, “there and there.”

In nearly every stand of trees, neat rectangles of cultivated earth, dotted like dice with precise rows of young plants, broke the greenery.

At 2,000 feet in the clattering helicopter, the Thai policemen shook their heads in frustration and grudging admiration. To them the rectangles spotting the landscape were a pox, a resilient, growing rash of marijuana production, the latest chapter in Thailand’s notorious history of drug traffic.

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Explosive Problem

An American drug enforcement official calls it an explosion. Maj. Gen. Chavalit Yodmani, Thailand’s top narcotics cop, said the huge profits--larger than those from opium--could push it “beyond our control.”

“Marijuana will be our biggest problem,” the general predicted in an interview at his Bangkok office. “With opium, I only have to watch the high ground. I have a target. Marijuana grows anywhere.”

In the world drug trade, Southeast Asia has always meant opium and, for Americans, heroin, an opium derivative. The Golden Triangle, the mountainous confluence of Burma, Laos and Thailand, is a major producer of the opium poppy, along with the Golden Crescent of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Marijuana has been a domestic narcotic of the lower classes, rarely a factor in the regional export trade. In northeast Thailand, the dried leaves were used as a seasoning for curries.

GIs Found ‘Thai Stick’

During the Vietnam War, American troops here popularized the firecracker-potent “Thai stick,” originally sold as a bit of leaf wrapped around a splinter of bamboo. Thai marijuana has a high content of THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, the plant’s main narcotic ingredient.

Some Thai stick found its way to the United States in those years, but easy access to Mexican and other Latin American pot discouraged high-volume trade in the drug from Asia.

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However, as Chavalit, the Thai drug enforcer, noted: “Fighting narcotics is like squeezing a big balloon. When you grab one end, the other bulges.”

For the past decade, American agents have been squeezing hard on marijuana exports from Latin America, driving up the cost of production and reducing profits. The resulting bulge popped out here in Thailand.

As in the colonial European development of Asian opium markets and production in the 19th Century, the impetus came from outside.

American Influence

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“There is American organizational influence behind this,” a U.S. drug enforcement official said. He would not identify the specific source.

“Long before we knew what had happened,” admitted another Western narcotics expert, “they (American drug traffickers) got out here and made contacts.”

The Americans, he said, provided the seed, fertilizer and the expertise--teaching Thais to grow marijuana by the fruitful sensemilla process, a California development that increases bud production.

“It is the most successful example of American technological transfer to the Third World,” the expert suggested.

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Pot for export began in the northeastern provinces around Nakhon Phanom six or seven years ago, according to Chavalit, then broke out to the north and south in the past two or three years.

Enormous Profits

No precise figures are available on the volume or value of the trade--it is estimated that shipments may have quadrupled in the past three years--but the profits are enormous, according to Thai and Western drug enforcement officials. They say:

-- A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Thai marijuana that costs $10 at the farm and $40 in Bangkok can bring in $1,000 or more in the United States.

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-- A mother ship in the Gulf of Thailand can take aboard up to 15 tons of pot, run out by small boats from shore. That is a multimillion-dollar shipment, and instead of facing the heavy patrols and choke points of the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico the marijuana-runner can lose itself in the vast Pacific from the time it clears the Gulf of Thailand until its appears off the American West Coast.

“The Americans hide whole carrier battle groups from the Russians out there (in the Pacific),” one narcotics expert pointed out.

Most marijuana is exported from here by ship, but Thai authorities recently seized a truckload, 2,000 pounds, on its way to Bangkok’s international airport.

‘Threat to Thai Society’

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The marijuana explosion has presented Thai authorities with a range of problems. Chavalit specifically mentioned the corrupting influence, calling it a “threat to Thai society.”

“If I make millions from marijuana, I could instigate a lot of trouble,” he explained. “Money is power, power is money.”

The majority of marijuana is grown here in the provinces of northeastern Thailand, a poor region where farmers struggle against drought and depleted soil. The northeast was the center of the Communist-led Thai insurgency of the 1970s.

According to Chavalit, the farmers know that production of marijuana, like opium, is illegal, but they look past the legalities.

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Farmers See No Wrong

“They don’t go out and steal. They don’t hurt anybody physically. They need money, and they don’t see that they’re doing anything really wrong,” he said.

Meanwhile, the trafficker can amass a fortune and pose problems for government, the police general continued. He implied that criminal money would mix with politics in the northeast if the marijuana problem cannot be brought under control.

Meanwhile, the pot explosion overwhelmed Thai drug enforcers just as they were beginning to make progress on opium production here.

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Thailand retains the highest profile of the three Golden Triangle states not because of its production, but because its good transportation and communications made it a funnel to markets in the West.

30 Tons of Opium a Year

According to Western estimates, Thailand is producing about 30 tons of raw opium annually, compared to 120 tons in Communist-ruled Laos and more than 800 tons in reclusive Burma. But most of the product from the neighboring two states finds its way into Thai export channels.

(Both Thai and Western narcotics agents said they have evidence that some Laotian opium also is entering the international market through ports in neighboring Vietnam.)

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Thailand’s opium production, in fact, is not sufficient to service its own addicts, and the country is a net opium importer. Opium usage in Bangkok mainly involves heroin No. 4, the injectable powder favored in the United States and in most Southeast Asian countries as well.

An exception is Hong Kong, where the favorite is heroin No. 3, a powder that is placed on aluminum foil and burned. The user sniffs the vapors, a practice called “chasing the dragon.”

The methods used in checking the growth of heroin here--enforcement, eradication of fields and substitute crops for farmers--are now being applied against marijuana production.

Domestic Use Up Sharply

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The majority of narcotics arrests in Thailand involve marijuana abuse, but the mushrooming production so far has not sharply increased domestic use. The authorities, therefore, have concentrated on the international traffic. The United States, through the State Department, has provided money to buy trucks, radios and some small weapons, according to the Thai Border Patrol officer.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official described relations with his Thai counterparts as “very good, very solid.”

Finding a substitute crop for illegal marijuana is a problem, considering the high profit and relatively easy work involved in growing pot. Fruits, coffee and cashews have been suggested as good cash crops under less international price pressure than rice, the Thai standby, but it takes three years or more to get a coffee operation under way, and farmers of the northeast live too close to the margin to wait.

Most of the pot is grown on public land, too rough or otherwise inaccessible for rice production. Eradication by paraquat or some other chemical would be the easiest approach, but the Thais have so far ruled it out.

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Politicians Move Cautiously

Three out of four Thais work on the land and the farmer is the key to politics here. The possibility of damaging the soil, water or other crops while spraying for marijuana is not a risk that the authorities are willing to take.

That leaves finding the pot, cutting it down and burning it. That was the object of the Border Patrol expedition last week.

The marijuana plots had already been spotted by aerial surveillance. Seen from 1,000 feet in the police Bell Huey choppers, the plants shimmered an emerald green beneath the duller foliage of the trees that were meant to hide them. At a few hundred feet, however, the pot patch was not visible through the branches and leaves, and the policemen had to find it on foot.

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The Border Patrol commander had assigned two platoons to the job, 40 men armed with long-handled scythes. They also carried automatic rifles, but the fields are normally empty when police raiders arrive. Booby-traps are an occasional problem.

Patrol Hits Jackpot

The patrol found two small patches, then the jackpot--a plot almost an acre in area, with about 1,000 plants, ranging in height from three to 12 feet. The plants had been laid out in straight rows, three feet apart. They had been recently fertilized, and a well had been dug in the center of the plot for irrigation.

It was the picture of a tidy piece of farming, and at American prices it represented several hundred thousand dollars worth of pot.

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It fell in 40 minutes--a whack with the scythe, a step up the row and another whack. When it was over, the 40 men stood in a field of felled marijuana plants probably worth more than their combined career salaries.

They gathered them up, tossed them on a pile and torched it. And in the woods all around them, more marijuana was growing.


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