Anti-drug officers will intensify their crackdown on opium poppy plantations near the northern border with Myanmar after rising demand for heroin in Thailand has revived cultivation of the illegal crop.
A raid last Saturday on an 80-rai piece of land in the Sui Thang area, in tambon Nong Bua of Chiang Mai's Chai Prakan district, revealed a resurgence in the growing of poppies, officers said.
The joint raid was carried out by members of the army, police and the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB).
The plantation they found was much larger than anything the officers had seen in the past. Villagers usually grow the poppies in small plots, a source in the 5th Cavalry Regiment, which joined the raid, said.
"They are now planting on an industrial scale," task force chief Col Wichai Tharichat said.
Domestic demand for heroin has increased dramatically recently due to its comparative cheapness in comparison with methamphetamine.
"Ya ba has been popular in our country for years. This has caused heroin prices to drop sharply," the 5th Cavalry Regiment source said.
Sui Thang area, which is near a natural border pass between Thailand and Myanmar, has long been known by drug suppression officers as a major opium growing region.
Once the area's poppies are harvested, opium latex will be sent to factories along the border that will process it into heroin, Col Wichai said. The drug will then be sold in Thailand or shipped abroad.
Col Wichai admitted that locating the poppy fields was difficult. Even using aerial surveillance, the crops are usually grown among cabbages on mountain slopes and are hard to spot.
The poppies' colourful flowers can help officers identify the plants, but by the time the flowers are in bloom, it is too late because farmers will have tapped the opium latex before raids can be organised and carried out.
Inspecting the area on foot is also not easy due to the sheer size and ruggedness of the Sui Thang area.
Even if they do arrive in time, arresting opium traffickers is another major challenge, Col Wichai said, because they are often able to escape into Myanmar as soon as Thai authorities close in.
However, he said, the ONCB is using a variety of tactics to try and reduce the demand for heroin in Thailand.