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Laos Opium Output Falls Sharply - 2004-07-09

The United Nations says opium production in Laos has fallen dramatically, and a senior U.N. official predicts the infamous Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia could be opium-free in a few years. The United Nations is calling for more international aid to encourage farmers to stop growing opium.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that opium cultivation in Laos fell 45 percent during the past year, to 6,600 hectares. Because of the smaller crop, opium prices are up by more than 25 percent.

Laos had 30,000 hectares of opium crop 14 years ago. The crop has been falling steadily since 1998.

U.N. drug Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said Friday the decline in output is the result of Lao government policy, U.N. efforts and private aid.

But Mr. Costa called on the international community to step up aid to the farmers. Lao farmers earn an average of $62 a year, compared with per-capita income of $300 for the rest of the country.

The Golden Triangle region, where the borders of Laos, Burma, and Thailand meet, has been notorious for its opium output and heroin trafficking during the past four decades. Mr. Costa, however, says those days may be ending.

"I believe that the whole region, namely what used to be called the Golden Triangle area, is heading toward an opium-free status within the next few years, which would be quite an historical change," he said.

Despite shrinking output, Mr. Costa says it appears more people in the region are abusing opiates, including heroin.

But he says the global drug trade appears to be shifting away from opiates to chemical drugs, such as methamphetamines.

Officials say that despite a high-profile crackdown last year Thailand continues to battle a flow of illegal methamphetamine imports.

Factories based just inside neighboring Burma are capable of producing billions of methamphetamine pills a year, and they are smuggled into Thailand, as well as into other parts of Southeast Asia and China.