For years, drug commander Rich Burden thought for sure the greatest threat to Arizona was methamphetamine.
Then late last summer at a federal drug training academy in Quantico, Va., he met two high-ranking cops from Thailand who told him they'd seen something worse.
"And I'm thinking, I know meth. I know the meth world. What could be worse than methamphetamine?" said Burden, a lieutenant with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and head of the state's multi-agency meth task force. Their answer? Yaba.
It's the Thai word for "crazy medicine," a strange mix of methamphetamine and caffeine pressed into a pill and flavored like candy. Yaba recently surpassed heroin as the most abused drug in Thailand and is ravaging that nation. It is used by children there as young as 9. But now there are signs it is headed toward the West. Over the past few years there have been yaba seizures by police in places such as England, France, Hawaii and California.
And as recently as 2005, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said it had seized at least 12,000 yaba tablets from mail facilities throughout the nation, manufactured by a single foreign organization. For Burden, these facts make him imagine Arizona torn apart by yaba. "I got almost fearful of what it's going to do to us," he said. That fear prompted Burden late last year to journey to Thailand. Solid information about the drug and how to stop it is tough to come by in the U.S., where yaba has hardly penetrated.
But given its potential for destruction, Burden decided to conduct his own research. With no outside funding available, he bought a plane ticket to the capital city of Bangkok, scheduled a vacation for November and planned to meet with the same high-ranking Thai police who told him about yaba in the first place.
Why It's Worse
The physiological effects of yaba are nearly identical to methamphetamine, according to federal researchers. The only difference is, with yaba the high can last for days instead of hours. Caffeine helps slow down the release of meth into the body, Burden said. First, it starts with an adrenaline rush, like racing down the first hill of a roller coaster for hours.
Your body temperature rises. Chills shoot down your arms, legs and chest. Some users think bugs are crawling under their skin from the feeling. They bite or pick at their skin to get the bugs out. Then, when the high is coming to an end, your fists clench, your face gets rigid and your whole body may shake.
Some people will sleep for days following the high, known as "crashing." Drug enforcers agree, however, that it's not the length of the high that makes yaba more dangerous than meth, it's who yaba is marketed to: kids. Bright colors. Candy flavorings. A perception that pills are safer than other drugs or are distributed by legitimate pharmacists. All of these attract a younger crowd, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.
In Thailand, "drug dealers are marketing this drug towards the younger generation," Burden said. Dealers get kids, teens and twenty-somethings hooked on the drug to both increase demand and get younger, hipper dealers, he said.
Nation On Edge
Just weeks before Burden was scheduled to land in Bangkok, military tanks surrounded government offices while the elected prime minister was in New York, preparing to speak at the United Nations. The coup d'etat was peaceful and bloodless. Still, there was no way Burden could reach the cops he intended to meet there. He tried to cancel his ticket, but it was nonrefundable. So he went anyway. On Thai streets, with tanks nearby, Burden asked local police about yaba and told them he was an American cop researching it. "They were really freaked out," Burden said. "When I said the word 'yaba' they almost looked at me as a suspect." Because of the coup, his informal research was not working out the way he hoped. But Burden went on. He walked down alleyways and streets, and soon, he heard random Thai men chirp, "Yaba, you want yaba?" He was told by the police not to even talk to the men, or else he might be arrested. He decided to steer clear.
Since 2003, Thailand's war on drugs has been more of a violent, physical war than any here in the states. Responding to an epidemic of yaba use in that nation, its then-prime minister approved measures to treat a drug pusher as "a dangerous person who is threatening social and national security." The ensuing campaign resulted in the homicides of 2,275 drug criminals in three months, more than double the number killed during any three-month period before it, according to Human Rights Watch. The Thai government maintains they were killed by other drug criminals, but the human rights group remained skeptical and cited cases of police shootings and "extrajudicial killings." In the U.S., the contrast couldn't be more drastic.
Most federal agencies are aware yaba exists. Some even have summaries of its dangers posted on their Web sites.
But as a Washington spokesman with the National Drug Intelligence Center put it: "It's not a high priority." The center, which is part of the U.S. justice department, monitors drugs in American communities and once a year publishes the "National Drug Threat Assessment." "We by no means have an expert on yaba," said spokesman Charles Miller, who scoffed at the idea of a local cop studying a drug that hasn't become widespread anywhere in the U.S. yet.
But having so little information on the drug is dangerous, Burden said. A central strategy in fighting drugs is through prevention and education. "Out of everybody I've talked to (about yaba), I think I know the most so far," Burden said. "I have a hard time going to anybody to learn more than I know about this drug, which is, I feel, not enough." Michael Chapman, former East Asia regional director for the DEA, commended Burden's research.
"The more comprehensive your knowledge is, the more effective you're going to be," said Chapman, who now helps lead the DEA's San Francisco office. Yaba is "not just going to look like a bunch of empty pills to him." Chapman should know. During his three years stationed in Bangkok, he helped the U.S. government indict several leaders of the Myanmar's rebel United Wa State Army, considered the largest manufacturer of yaba in the world.
Already In The U.S.
Fear of yaba -- and of the epidemic it could become -- is not new in the U.S. Earlier this decade, yaba received attention in northern California, particularly in the Bay Area, where U.S. Cusseized More and of toms it out mail agents than in of facilities a the 45 pulled two shipments Port -year in of shipments !the Oakland period area were . , according to media reports at the time.
"Back then, it got quite a bit of publicity because ... it appeared it was being marketed to a younger audience," said Gordon Taylor, the assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's Sacramento office. The drug was isolated mostly to southeast Asian communities. It rarely appeared elsewhere, and when it did, it was in the club scene. "We thought it was going to be the next big drug and it really didn't take off," Taylor said.
Burden, during his twoand-a-half-week journey to Thailand, saw mounds of evidence of what yaba can do to a nation if given the opportunity. He wants to go back this spring when he hopes the nation will stabilize and he can learn more about it in an official capacity.
His boss, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, said he is looking for ways to fund the trip. While yaba is not yet known to be here in Arizona, according to both Burden and the DEA in Phoenix, Burden believes it's just a matter of time before it arrives.
"Who says we don't have a problem coming this way?" Burden said. "Ring the bell. Turn on the siren. Shout. Let's educate our children on this new demand for a new drug that's coming our way. Why wait?"
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