QMJC July 2023: The social forces that shape consumption of methamphetamine in Thailand
In July 2023, colleagues from Deakin University (Australia) held a meeting of the Qualitative Methods Journal Club to discuss an article about the growing demand for methamphetamine in northern Thailand. In this blog, they summarise the context for use of ‘ya ba’ among young people, and highlight the value of ethnographic drug research.
Thailand now has one of the largest methamphetamine markets globally and its widespread availability has contributed to its popularity among young people.
Thailand is one of the largest per capita consumers of methamphetamine pills in the world, with young people comprising the majority of consumers. Yet within the large literature on the sociology of drugs, Thailand is a comparatively under-researched region. This 2014 article by Anjalee Cohen directly addresses this opening in the literature by exploring the social forces that shape the consumption of methamphetamine pills (or ya ba – ‘crazy drug’) among young people in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic research, the author situates the growing appeal of ya ba in relation to changing social values associated with capitalist development in Thailand. She suggests that the drug’s popularity is bound up with its local image among Thai youth as a modern, fashionable consumer commodity – an image that stands in striking contrast to the negative tropes of ya ba in government and media discourses where it is depicted as a threat to the social order.
Cohen begins the article with a historical overview of the rise of methamphetamine use in Thailand, documenting its changing legal status and its consumption among shift workers and long-haul truck drivers to increase performance and endurance. By the 1990s, consumption of ya ba had shifted with growing numbers of students taking it to enhance their academic performance. A decade later, young people were the largest group of consumers with a growing trend towards crystal methamphetamine use in recreational settings. Thailand now has one of the largest methamphetamine markets globally and its widespread availability has contributed to its popularity among young people. The changing status of ya ba in Thailand from the 1960s to the present day highlights the social contingency of drug-related myths and stereotypes. As Cohen notes, by the 1990s, methamphetamine had become associated with a hedonistic youth culture and was seen as much more of a threat than when it was “the ‘diligent drug’ that helped boost performance and endurance in low skilled jobs requiring physical labour and/or long hours”.
The author’s emic account of the social world of young Thai consumers attends carefully to their cultural values and agency, and highlights the utility of ya ba as means of ‘keep[ing] up with the demands and expectations of a modern capitalist society’.
The group agreed that a strength of the article was its well-contexualised, historical analysis of methamphetamine use or ya ba among Thai youth. By situating ya ba consumption in relation to the broader socio-economic and cultural influences of consumer capitalism, Cohen convincingly illustrates how the values attributed to particular drugs depend on normative social judgements, rather than on the intrinsic properties of the drugs themselves. This allows an analysis that avoids pathologising consumers as irresponsible and irrational, and instead interprets drug consumption within a broader social ethos oriented to the pursuit of pleasure and capitalist consumption.
We also noted the strikingly different meanings that drugs carry in specific contexts. In Thailand, young consumers assign positive associations to synthetic drugs (e.g. amphetamines) as products of modern Western technology, which gives them the status of a trendy commodity. By contrast, in the Australian context where we are based, consumption of amphetamines (and especially crystal methamphetamine) attracts significant social opprobrium due in part to stigmatising public health campaigns featuring desaturated images depicting illicit drug use as the path to decline and misery.
Another strength of the article was its fine-grained discussion of ya ba metaphors. This added texture and detail to the analysis, demonstrating the role of metaphor in materialising ya ba as a ‘performance drug’ that supports Thai young people’s participation in a modern industrial society which values performance and endurance productivity.
In sum, Cohen’s analysis demonstrates the value of ethnographic drug research, which allows the researcher to immerse themselves in local sub-cultures, in this case, the youth sub-cultures of Thai ya ba consumers. The author’s emic account of the social world of young Thai consumers attends carefully to their cultural values and agency, and highlights the utility of ya ba as means of “keep[ing] up with the demands and expectations of a modern capitalist society”.
Original article: Crazy for Ya Ba: Methamphetamine use among northern Thai youth. By Anjalee Cohen. Published in the International Journal of Drug Policy (2014).
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