New drug from Thailand is a hit on West Coast

By Louise Chu
Saturday October 05, 2002

SACRAMENTO — The newest thing to hit the underground club scene in California is a sweet, colorful little pill that can keep someone dancing all night long. 

But what may seem as harmless as candy is a new form of methamphetamine called ya ba, a Thai name meaning “crazy drug,” that is said to be significantly more powerful — and dangerous — than the current club drug of choice, Ecstasy. 

Last month, federal agents in Sacramento made the largest bust of ya ba smugglers since the drug first appeared in the United States three years ago. The arrests of 10 people in Sacramento for allegedly smuggling 75,000 pills from Thailand and Laos came after U.S. Customs seized 46 shipments of ya ba in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu, which were destined for Sacramento addresses. 

So far, ya ba has appeared mainly in Southeast Asian communities around California, but law enforcement’s efforts have been hampered because “we’re talking about a pretty closed community, so it’s pretty hard to get information about that,” said Daniel Lane, the lead U.S. Customs official in Sacramento. 

Some drugs have started out in a niche market and gradually spread into the mainstream community. Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller that has also shown up on the underground club scene, first gained a following in poor, rural areas, gaining the nickname “hillbilly heroin.” 

An activist in Sacramento’s Southeast Asian community, who asked not to be named, said she first started hearing about ya ba three or fours years ago. Ya ba use has been “causing dysfunctional families,” she said, in the Mien, Hmong and Laotian communities, which have large concentrations in the Sacramento area. 

“We’ve reported it, but I think the federal authorities didn’t think it was that much of a problem,” she said. 

Will Glaspy, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the drug has mostly remained in the Southeast Asian community. “Many of them are just keeping it to themselves. They’re not distributing it.” 

More recently, however, unidentified meth tablets have begun to show up at raves, which could be ya ba pills, Glaspy said, although they were simply categorized as methamphetamines. 

“The scary thing about these is that they are adding color to them and adding flavor, which could give the perception that these drugs are less dangerous than they really are,” he said. 

A potent mix of methamphetamine and caffeine, ya ba allows its users to stay awake for days. A meth high also brings hallucinogenic effects, during which users sometimes believe they have bugs crawling under their skin and scratch themselves violently to get them out. Other common side effects include increased heart rate, dehydration, paranoia and depression. 

Ya ba has become a vague label for any type of meth in pill form, although it specifically refers to the brand produced in Southeast Asia. Meth more commonly comes in powder form, allowing users to snort it through their nostrils or inhale its fumes when heated. 

In its pill form, ya ba is sometimes passed off at raves as Ecstasy, another popular stimulant, Glaspy said. But the added danger with meth compared to Ecstasy is that there is no set recipe for it, so its purity is often questionable. 

“One person who’s manufacturing ya ba could come up with something that’s a little different than the next guy,” Glaspy said. 

Ya ba is produced mainly in Burma by the United Wa State Army, a group of ethnic tribespeople allied with the country’s ruling junta and known to be one of the world’s largest and most well-armed drug-dealing organizations, law enforcement officials said. 

The pills are then smuggled across the border into Thailand by the millions. The drug has caused what officials have called a national epidemic, with the Thai Health Ministry estimating that as much as 5 percent of the population, or 3 million people, regularly use ya ba. 

When the drug first began showing up in Thailand more than 30 years ago, it was sold legally at gas stations, where truckers would pop a pill to stay alert through long-distance drives. The government declared it illegal in 1970, but the drug has since managed to enter all segments of Thai society, with reports of widespread drug use by manual laborers, college students and even five-year-old schoolchildren. 

The drug already has spread outside Southeast Asia, where ya ba has reportedly shown up on the underground club scene throughout Europe and Australia. 

In the United States, ya ba has shown up only in California, which is already the nation’s main meth maker. Mexican criminal groups still dominate the meth production, according to the DEA, although the Southeast Asian variety has been gaining ground. 

Sacramento was the scene of the first mainland seizure of ya ba in 1999, when police found a few hundred pills during an investigation of a local Southeast Asian gambling house. Before that, drug officials had only heard of ya ba from seizures in Guam and Hawaii, said Sacramento Police Department detective Thomas Little, who was involved in that investigation. 

The arrests in Sacramento last month stemmed from four different investigations, three involving attempts to mail boxes of ya ba into the country and one involving an attempt to smuggle both opium and ya ba in a shipment of furniture. 

But smugglers have gotten much more creative than that, Lane said. He’s seen ya ba stuffed into CD cases, chopsticks and even dead insects.