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UN Says Laos Could Be Free of Opium by End of 2005

Opium addicts in Laos
The United Nations says Laos is almost free of opium production, as government eradication efforts and alternative development projects take full effect. Not only has Laos seen a dramatic decline in production, it is also rehabilitating thousands of opium addicts.

In its latest Laos Opium Survey, the United Nations says the country has cut opium output by two-thirds over the past year and could be essentially free of the drug by the end of 2005.

The report issued this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - UNODC - says just 1,800 hectares of poppies were under cultivation in early 2005, compared with nearly seven thousand last year.

Fifteen years ago, the figure was 30,000 hectares.

The area where the borders of Laos, Burma and Thailand meet is known as the "Golden Triangle", traditionally a major opium producing area.

Klaus Nyholm, UNODC representative in Laos, says the absence of armed rebel groups has contributed to the fall in opium poppy production.

"Through the eyes of the drug industry, Laos is not such an easy country to work in," said Klaus Nyholm. "It lacks - for instance - an armed insurgency depending on drugs and protecting the drug industry, as we have seen in all the other major illicit crop producing countries."

Mr. Nyholm says villagers' lives have also improved as the 20,000 opium addicts in Laos undergo rehabilitation.

"Getting rid then of opium has in many villages had a positive effect - not least on the women who did most of the work before and also had to suffer from their husbands' addiction and violence, etc," he said.

Effective government programs have also played a part. Large amounts of aid have enabled Laos to promote alternative cash crops and develop livestock production. Aid has also been used for infrastructure projects, such as roads and medical centers.

Mr. Nyholm believes there is little likelihood of Laos returning to opium poppies for income.

"I really don't think we will see Laos as a major opium producer - there might be a little here and there mainly for the older addicts [but] I don't think we'll see Laos as a major producer," explained Klaus Nyholm.

But even as Laos succeeds in eradicating opium production, the Golden Triangle remains a haven for illegal trafficking of methamphetamine, manufactured in Burma and then smuggled into Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.