“I really did not want to do it”: Smoking opium to investigate drug crime

From meeting meth addicts locked in cells to joining an opium den, Patrick Winn wants the world to see the human face of organised crime.

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“Oh, no thank you.”

Patrick Winn’s first words at being offered opium in a wooden hut in Myanmar could have been his last.

The 37-year-old journalist, from a small factory town in North Carolina described recently by the Financial Times as “impoverished”, had set out to investigate organised crime in Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand, where he has lived in the capital Bangkok for ten years.

Although he specialises in this reporting as Asia correspondent at Public Radio International, he’d never before been in an opium den. Or taken the drug, which he was forced to do to avoid arousing suspicion that he was a policeman.

“I really did not want to do it because I was nervous and I did not want to lose control of my cognitive abilities,” he recalls. “I was scared.”

The man offering him opium – which he describes in his book compiling his reporting, Hello, Shadowlands as “like melted clumps of dark chocolate” – was a military officer, introduced to him by his local colleague, translator and guide, Gideon.

“The person I’m always the most afraid of is someone who is involved with the government – whether police or, worse yet, military,” Winn tells me when we meet rather incongruously over a cup of tea in a London hotel.

In this setting, it’s difficult to imagine Winn, clean-shaven with his cropped hair neatly gelled and dressed in blue chinos with brown brogues, holed up in a drug den.

But his revelatory book reveals his raw anger at the way criminals and drug-takers in southeast Asia are portrayed in the media.

These include everyone involved in and affected by organised crime, from dognappers selling people’s pets in Vietnam to slaughterhouses to Christian vigilantes running “rehab” camps for meth addicts by trapping them in cement cells in Myanmar.

“My experience of reporting on organised crime is that, well, I quite like a lot of these people who are considered criminals and I think that their actions are fully justified,” he tells me.

“If you read about this stuff in the western media, there’s very little nuance,” he adds. “You just walk away thinking they’re like villains in a B movie or something – like extras in Apocalypse Now. That is not my experience at all.”

This is why Winn, aware of his privilege in such situations as a white man, felt more afraid for his guide in that opium den than for himself. “I’m in less danger than the person I’m working with,” he emphasises.

“When the guy said that he was with the military, I just got chills,” he says. “If he decided he didn’t like me, it’d be really easy for him to cause trouble for me or the person that had brought me there.”

So he took the drug.

What followed were a sleepy and blurred few hours – and snatched memories of staring at the sunrise before passing out in his hotel room bed. “Trying to recall precise details is like trying to grasp handfuls of syrup,” he writes.

After Afghanistan, Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium, which is used primarily to make heroin.

While poppy cultivation is still a large source of organised crime in the country, the production of synthetic drugs – mainly methamphetamine pills (speed) – is taking over, making Myanmar the biggest illicit speed market in the world.

While sales of heroin are “on the decline”, authorities in China and southeast Asia have seen meth pill seizures increase tenfold from 2008 to 2016, Winn finds. In his book, he compares the number of pills coming out of Myanmar (estimated to be 2-6 billion) to “triple the number of coffees served each year by Starbucks worldwide” and more “each year than McDonald’s serves Big Macs. By a factor of ten”.

These low-purity tablets, known as ya ma (“horse pills”, because they instil so much energy and intensity) in Myanmar and ya ba (“madness pills”) in Thailand, are produced in the region – and cost as little as a dollar. They can be swallowed or smoked.

Winn emphasises that he meets parents and office workers who take meth and live their lives much like functioning alcoholics, and draws a contrast with poorer people who are punished for their addiction. The latter are often scapegoated by politicians in the region, such as the Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, as having a moral failing, or being prone to kill and rape.

Although he’s never taken it himself, Winn meets addicts and recreational smokers. He notes the strong sweet smell of the first candy-like pink pills he encounters in his book – “exactly like vanilla cake frosting”, from an additive used by meth chemists. His subjects triple-wrap their pills so they can’t be sniffed out by drug police, or the Christian fundamentalist vigilante group Pat Jasan, which hunts down users, abducts them and cages them in Myanmar’s Kachin State

“They [the government in Myanmar] don’t care about building the rehabs and clinics to make life easier on drug users to help people get off if people want to get off. So addiction has spiralled out of control there.”

Winn blames the “drug war mentality” imposed by the United States for the suffering he’s seen the trade cause across southeast Asia. “I think the United States bears a lot of responsibility for spreading that ideology,” he tells me, favouring the idea of state-sanctioned drug use over the war on drugs policy that dominates globally.

“That would be my utopian ideal,” Winn says.

By giving the war on drugs a human face, he hopes more people will see the suffering caused by a war not worth fighting – or at least dispel some myths about the places where drugs come from.

“I worry that people will think that the region is descending into violence, or that they’ll go onto the beach in Thailand and be preyed upon,” he frets about the perception of his book.

“But I don’t have any evidence whatsoever to show that random violent crime is increasing. I would much, much rather go to the roughest neighbourhood in Bangkok than the roughest neighbourhood in the United States.”

Hello, Shadowlands: Inside the meth fiefdoms, rebel hideouts and bomb-scarred party towns of South East Asia by Patrick Winn is published by Icon Books.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.