Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, has a complex history of drug use and production. From the opium trade of the 19th century to the modern-day methamphetamine business, Indochina has long been influenced by the drug industry – a tradition that continues to this day. By Chris Mueller. Photos by Fred Wissink.

On Halloween 2007, Steven Martin prepared himself for days of pain and suffering. He stocked his refrigerator with easy-to-digest food, removed the lid of his toilet to make it easier to flush, and then sat and waited for withdrawal to begin. 

Martin had unsuccessfully tried to quit smoking opium two times already, and in order to prepare himself better this time, he read descriptions of opium withdrawal from his small library of century-old, leather-bound books. As he sat waiting in his small, ninth-floor apartment in Bangkok’s Chinatown, he thought about the book passages:

I had read of people tightly trussed to their beds and locked in rooms by loved ones,” he wrote. “There were tales of prayers shrieked through the night; pleas for a hasty death that were sometimes answered by a body too shocked to function beyond a few days without opium … And if I survived the physical pain, once it began to diminish, the mental anguish would take over: a dense boom of depression lowered onto a brain already exhausted by long nights of sleeplessness … Just as your body turns against you during the days of physical withdrawal, so too, your mind will conspire with opium to unleash mental torment at its most intolerable. Whatever is most likely to unhinge you, that is what you will experience.”

The pain, hallucinations and sickness that would follow left Martin covered in “oily sweat and traces of vomit, mucus, and feces”. Barely 36 hours after his last hit of opium, Martin found himself using again, returning to a cycle that seemed impossible to escape.

In Martin’s recently published memoir, Opium Fiend, A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, he chronicles his struggle as an opium-addicted expat in Bangkok. He had tried before to quit opium, which by that point he had been smoking continuously for months, finishing as many as 30 pipes a day. But he still wasn’t prepared for what was to come. Martin originally became drawn in by the drug while amassing a vast collection of antique opium pipes, a subject he had previously written a book about.

Addiction certainly isn’t only a problem for expats. But what Martin’s book illustrates is just how easy it is to feed the habit in an environment where you can escape your friends and family and where virtually no support network exists.

Drugs in Southeast Asia From the opium trade to the modern-day methamphetamine business, South East Asia has long been influenced by the drugs tradeDrugs in Southeast Asia

Although Martin’s drug of choice was opium, which has an extensive history in the region, it is no longer widely smoked throughout Southeast Asia. Now only a few elderly people in minority tribes smoke it regularly. Southeast Asia has long been known for its strong opium, especially in the Golden Triangle – a mountainous area where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet – which is famous for growing opium poppy.

Initially, the opium trade in Southeast Asia wasn’t as big as in other regions, but in the late-19th century the French started to control opium poppy production, establishing a monopoly on the trade. As World War II spread to Indochina, the region, and its hundreds of thousands of addicts, was cut off from its main source of opium in the Middle East. As a result, opium production in the Golden Triangle and Vietnam grew exponentially. It wasn’t until 1946 that the French gave into international pressure and ended its official sanctioning of the opium trade.

But up until they were defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French would use the opium trade as a way to finance themselves. Then, when the Americans came, heroin use and opium production in both Vietnam and the United States skyrocketed.

Although opium production in the region has always been high, it has gone down drastically since its height during the early 1900s. But now, it is making a comeback. Opium production in the Golden Triangle has increased for the seventh consecutive year, the United Nations said in a report released last month. According to the report, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand now produce 18 percent of the worldwide opium supply. In Myanmar alone, opium production increased by 26 percent compared to 2012.

The vast majority of this opium is being used to produce heroin, which is making its way across the borders into Vietnam. Vietnamese culture has typically favoured turning a blind eye to drug addicts rather than treating them, but the problem is getting difficult to ignore.

Under or on many bridges around Ho Chi Minh City, heroin users are a common sight, or at least their used needles on the ground are. Vietnam isn’t particularly open about the country’s drug use statistics, but Thanh Nien reported in a recent article that drug use is increasing nationwide. By the end of 2012, there were 171,000 reported drug users, an 8 percent increase over the previous year.

Vietnam’s treatment of drug addicts has received wide-spread criticism from human rights groups, which claim addicts here are mainly treated as criminals rather than patients. But since 2008, methadone clinics to treat drug addiction have spread throughout the country. These clinics are designed to supplement, not replace, the already existing treatment centres. Government officials involved with the clinics say they have been hugely successful, reducing the number of drug addicts, and in return combating Vietnam’s HIV epidemic.

While opium and heroin continue to be a problem throughout the region, it’s the growing methamphetamine trade that seems to be making the biggest impact. In 2012 alone, 227 million meth pills were seized in East and Southeast Asia, a 59 percent increase from the year before, and seven times the number seized in 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in a November report. In addition, 11.6 metric tonnes of crystal meth were seized in 2012, a 12 percent rise from 2011.

The report also found that meth is the most used illicit drug in 13 of the 15 Asia-Pacific countries surveyed. Specific data wasn’t available for Vietnam, but according to the report, there have been “significant increases” in seizures. The UN says heroin remains the biggest drug of choice in Vietnam, but meth is a close second.

Drugs in Southeast Asia From the opium trade to the modern-day methamphetamine business, South East Asia has long been influenced by the drugs tradeExpats and drugs

All it takes is a trip to Pham Ngu Lao at night to see how easy it is to drugs here.

The smell of weed fills the air on a typical night. People pass around joints and xe om drivers push their wares. As it gets later, the pills start to come out at the many bars and cafes that spill onto the sidewalks. Anyone who has spent any time in this city knows this is a familiar scene, one in which mysterious drugs (you never really know what you’re getting) are always on the menu.

The expat and local drug culture of the Pham may be a normal part of Ho Chi Minh City, but Vietnam does actually have some of the toughest drug laws in the world. Vietnam’s penal code states that anyone convicted of trafficking, illegally producing or transporting 100 grams or more of heroin or cocaine or 300 grams of other illegal drugs can be sentenced to death, according to Thanh Nien. In addition, anyone found possessing more than 600 grams of heroin or 20 kilograms of opium can face the death penalty, the Associated Press reported.

And Vietnamese authorities certainly aren’t afraid to use these laws against drug traffickers. Just last month, five people were sentenced to death for their part in an international heroin trafficking ring between Laos and Vietnam, according to local press reports. In August, a Thai woman was sentenced to death for smuggling nearly two kilograms of cocaine from Brazil to Vietnam; also that month a Nigerian man was sentenced to death for smuggling more than 3.4 kilograms of methamphetamine from Qatar into Vienam. Stories like these in the local press are common.

Despite severe punishments for drug possession in Vietnam, hard drug use among expats is still a common occurrence, although not more so than in most of our home countries, according to the Castle Craig Hospital, a residential treatment facility in Scotland that specialises in alcohol and drug-dependent expats. There are, however, some unique factors for expats that can lead to not only drug abuse, but also addiction, according to the Castle Craig website.

Many young expats studying or working abroad often find themselves as part of a circle of friends or colleagues in which life revolves around bars and parties. Jobs in expat communities also tend to be high-pressure positions, which can lead to coping mechanisms such as self-medicating with prescription medication or recreational drugs. Often those who don’t work, such as stay-at-home spouses, can find themselves taking drugs to fight isolation, loneliness and boredom with drugs.

“Expats – who are company directors, engineers, diplomats, and in general people who live or travel abroad – are dislocated from their homes, family and other support networks, this places them more at risk,” says Margaret McCann, a director at Castle Craig Hospital.

It’s the lack of these support networks that really differentiates expat communities from others. In Vietnam, there is some support for alcoholics, but little exists for drug-addicted expats. While the chances of drug addiction here isn’t greater than elsewhere, it’s important to keep in mind that there are more risks.

Read more about drugs in Asia on AsiaLIFE