“The amount of land being used to grow opium poppies continues to decline in Myanmar, but ongoing conflicts are hampering efforts to stamp out the trade at a time when the illicit drug economy is becoming increasingly diverse, according to a new United Nations report.
Some 37,300 hectares of land in the country was under poppy cultivation last year, down from 41,000 in 2017, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its Myanmar Opium Survey 2018 on Friday.
Nearly 90 percent of all the opium was grown in the northeastern Shan state, where government forces continue to battle ethnic rebels.
Myanmar has been battling conflicts in its border regions for decades and the unrest has long underpinned the drugs trade; in the mid-1990s, Golden Triangle, which includes the border areas of Laos and Thailand in addition to Myanmar, had the dubious distinction of being the center of the world’s opium and heroin trade.
Since then, government eradication efforts have helped tackle the problem, but the conflicts continue to provide the kind of conditions that allow the illicit drug trade to thrive.
About 2,605 hectares of cultivation was eradicated in 2018, 26 percent less than the previous year, it said. UNODC data shows eradication has been in decline since 2015.
The agency noted that economic problems, including a lack of job opportunities and income inequality, also contributed to the resilience of the drug trade amid increasing efforts by traffickers and organized criminals to diversify the market.
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Researchers from ISU’s College of Pharmacy went through all the prescriptions that were reported to the Idaho Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in 2017. They found about 201,000 people with short-term opioid prescriptions, meaning they had been taking opioids for less than 90 days and another 101,000 who had long-term prescriptions. Out of the ones who had been taking opioids for longer than 90 days, 25,000 were also prescribed benzodiazepines or another depressant.
Opioids, which includes common painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, are generally prescribed for chronic pain, while benzodiazepines, which includes drugs such as Xanax and Klonopin, are often prescribed as sleeping aids, anxiety or to prevent seizures. The problem with combining them is that, since both are depressants, it raises the risk of overdose and death, said James Berain, a student pharmacist who was one of the researchers. There are very few instances, such as end-of-life care, Berain said, where combining them would be appropriate.
What surprised the researchers, Berain said, was that 56 percent of people who were prescribed both opioids and benzodiazepines got them from the same doctor. Berain said they expected to see more cases where people were getting them from different doctors.
With the opioid epidemic raging across America, many scientists are in search of an alternative painkilling drug — one that could be used in place of opioids, without the deadly side effects.
Now, a team of researchers in the U.S. and Japan say they’ve developed a promising new synthetic drug that could be as effective as opioids in relieving pain but without posing the risk of addiction. In a new study, the drug, called AT-121, successfully relieved pain in rhesus monkeys without resulting in harmful side effects or causing the monkeys to become addicted. Still, more research is needed before the drug could be evaluated in humans.
Although the number of opioids prescribed in the U.S. has decreased since its peak in 2010, the levels remain high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that there were more than 42,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016, up from 33,000 deaths in 2015, Live Science previously reported.
The fact that the drug was studied in a primate model, rather than in a mouse model as is done in many similar studies, means that the effects of the drug are likely much closer to what scientists would expect to see in humans, Roth said. And the monkeys didn’t experience any changes in respiratory health while taking AT-121, which suggests that an overdose would be unlikely to cause the harmful or fatal respiratory effects associated with an opioid overdose. “That would be a significant advance if that [result] is transferable to humans,” Roth added.
The scientists plan to continue their research by carrying out the safety and toxicology studies that are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before proceeding with human clinical trials. “We want to move as fast as possible because our results are exciting,” Zaveri told Live Science. The scientists are also researching other compounds that have a similar profile as AT-121, she added.
Zhou Xing Ci’s family have farmed poppies for as long as anyone remembers, scraping the flowers’ sticky brown sap to produce opium.
Along with many other farmers in the hills of eastern Myanmar, the crop – much of which ends up as heroin sold on foreign streets – has in recent years put Myanmar behind only Afghanistan as the world’s leading source of opium.
A Chinese company working with farmers like Zhou hopes the silk-producing larva can help the farmers, and their country, quit the drug.
“Growing opium is too tough. It’s only one harvest every year and a rain can easily destroy a whole year’s work,” said Zhou.
The UN agency has assisted more than 1,000 farmers to switch from opium to another cash crop, coffee, since 2014, said Troels Vester, UNODC country manager for Myanmar.
Still, 41,000 hectares of poppy was planted in Myanmar last year, the agency said. Farmers in conflict areas were less likely to have moved to licit crops, it added.
In the corner of Myanmar where Zhou lives, bordering China’s Yunnan province, various armed groups operate and the law is barely enforced, providing a haven for opium traders, as well as heroin producers and meth-lab operators.
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