China's Yunnan province sits nestled in the country's southwest, snug up against Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. By dent of geography alone, it has long been a natural entrepôt for drugs emanating from the Golden Triangle. For the past two decades, Yunnan relied on two major strategies to combat the incoming traffic in opium-based narcotics — law enforcement and crop replacement projects in agricultural regions outside its borders. More recently, treatment has come to play an increasing role.
A November 2 article by news service Xinhua reports more than 100,000 drug traffickers have been arrested in Yunnan over the past four years. Seizures associated with these busts totaled 107 tons of assorted narcotics, the vast majority — roughly 85 percent — heroin or methamphetamines.
And while interdiction agents are obviously very busy, so too is the provincial Bureau of Commerce, albeit quietly. Since 2005, the bureau has organized and supported dozens of large- and small-scale poppy-replacement programs in both Laos and Myanmar, where the majority of the Golden Triangle's illicit opium is grown.
Investment surpassed one billion yuan (US$151 million) in 2012 — typically in rubber plantations — and has continued to grow over time. Today, hundreds of Chinese companies are involved in the effort. Replanting work now covers several hundred thousand hectares and involves growing not only rubber but also cassava, coffee, bananas and other cash crops. However, Chinese authorities are quick to admit the program has been far more successful in Laos than in Myanmar.
However, provincial officials are not satisfied with the combined results of interdiction and crop replacement. Yunnan continues to maintain the dubious distinctions of highest per capita drug use and rate of HIV/AIDS infection in China. And so the province has turned to treatment as a third alternative over the past few years.
According to government statistics, there are now 1,300 detoxification clinics scattered across the province, up from virtually none 15 years ago. Criminal sentencing standards have also been shifted away from simple incarceration and now focus more on counseling and treatment for non-violent offenders. These methods have proved successful enough — credited with getting an estimated 60,000 addicts clean since 2012 — that they have been adopted in other parts of China.
It appears progress in Yunnan is being made despite the better efforts of drug traffickers and the presence of the province's mountainous and porous borders. But demands from Beijing are high, as heroin use in other regions of China are on the rise and Yunnan remains the main entry point for the drug. There is also always the specter of the cheap and readily available meth that is used rampantly across Southeast Asia. Yunnan has upped its game significantly regarding illegal drug use, but it appears there is still much work to do.
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