The Business of Drugs Season 1, Episode 4 recap: Meth

HAMBURG, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 20: Amaryllis Fox during the "Markus Lanz" TV show on November 20, 2019 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Tristar Media/Getty Images)
HAMBURG, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 20: Amaryllis Fox during the "Markus Lanz" TV show on November 20, 2019 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Tristar Media/Getty Images) /

Episode 4 of Netflix’s The Business of Drugs examines the startingly huge meth industry in Myanmar.

In episode 4 of The Business of Drugs, former CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox continues examining the world of illicit drugs. This time the topic is methamphetamine, or “meth.” We learn that meth was first made in 1893 for invigorating factory workers in Japan. It’s also said many soldiers used it during World War II, and it was commonly used as a treatment for depression, asthma, and even weight loss before governments started making it illegal.

While meth is a global phenomenon, this episode largely focused on Myanmar, which has become a global focal point for meth production, partly because of its proximity to India, Thailand, and China.

Myanmar is quite well known for being a producer of “Yaba” pills, which are a blend of meth and caffeine in pill form. Fox says regions of Myanmar are well-suited for such production, due to certain mountainous areas which provide adequate cover for secrecy. Addiction specialist Suttipan Takkapaijit explains the appeal of such a drug very simply: It gets people high and makes them feel good.

The Business of Drugs Episode 4 recap: More about Yaba

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According to Yasmin Hurd, Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai, Yaba does what it does to people through dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Yaba translates as “crazy pill,” which suggests its manufacturers, transporters, sellers, and users are aware of its effects.

However, while many view such drugs with disdain, it’s still true that some workers still use it to gain energy to work more shifts, not unlike its aforementioned use in Japan.

The Business of Drugs says it’s Myanmar’s number one export. In fact, they allegedly make more Yaba pills than McDonald’s makes burgers. Jeremy Douglas, of the UN Office on Drugs & Crime, suggests it’s basically impossible to permanently stop all such operations. Not only is the production on a mass scale, but there’s no way to inspect all international cargo.

The Business of Drugs Episode 4 recap: Impact on traditional opium farmers

10,000 Yaba pills can be produced in an hour. Hkam Awng, the former head of Myanmar’s Anti-Narcotics Unit, tells The Business of Drugs that different groups are chiefly responsible, such as the Shan, Kachin, and Wa. Interestingly, Fox also interviews opium poppy growers, as Myanmar used to be the leader in that field, too. Sai Lone, a representative of the industry, provides some interesting insights into how meth muscles into their more traditional market.

It’s rather straightforward. Apparently, some opium farmers must accept meth as payments, so they end up having to become dealers themselves to get additional money. Nang Thwae Thwae, a former poppy farmer, reveals that, in this questionable operation, dealers also have to pay taxes to the military and police.

In other words, the more money you cough up for authorities, the more these “illicit drugs” become quasi-legalized. Of course, this will tend to reward those who already have more money, leaving those with less income more desperate.

The Business of Drugs Episode 4 recap: Dangers and rip-offs

As you can see, the narrative of The Business of Drugs is more nuanced than simply saying “Drugs are bad, m’kay?” It addresses other issues such as traders making more money than farmers. Amado De Andres of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime talks about how the industry is using real estate businesses for money laundering. Of course, you also have the issue of meth (and, presumably, combinations of different drugs) making people aggressive.

During one interview regarding the use of child soldiers, Amaryllis Fox has to cut off the interview over suspicious behavior across the street. Obviously, there are dangerous when interviewing people in such a profession. At the same time, not everyone’s particularly shy about it. According to The Business of Drugs, many Yaba pills feature a “DKBA” logo, which stands for Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

The Business of Drugs Episode 4 recap: Why Yaba meth might not end anytime soon

While many different factors affect the prices of drugs, one thing is clear: Certain people can get rich selling Yaba. Just as importantly, someone somewhere will always want to get high. Much like in the United States, a war on drugs hasn’t really worked very well, mostly just resulting in high incarceration rates in places like Thailand as drugs keep being produced anyway. In fact, Fox interviews someone named Nicole, a former meth dealer who was imprisoned for 3 years and 8 months for 5 grams.

So why has Myanmar become like an epicenter for meth? The series mentions the Wa state army, backed by China, who may have invented Yaba. Khun Sa was originally a heroin drug lord for the Shan state army, who might have partly relied on such revenue due to limited options. Still, Fox is skeptical when their newest leader, Yawd Serk, says the Shan state army is now against drugs. She thinks officer Hong Kham is leading a propaganda smokescreen when he claims the Burmese military is simply trying to wipe them out with drugs.

Nevertheless, the final scene is oddly humorous. As he denies they are still in the drug trade, they happen to be sitting on a vat most certainly used in drug production. Fox believes the government of Myanmar primarily only benefits from drugs through taxes and bribes and probably isn’t using it to intentionally weaken rebel forces. While it’s easy to think about this in conspiratorial terms, it’s also simply true that some people get high regardless of what the government says, or the punishments they threaten people with.

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