BASED in poverty and buoyed by cash and growing connectivity, opium poppy production in the Golden Triangle region has expanded for the eighth year running - which should set off alarm bells in regional governments, experts say.
Opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar and Laos rose to 63,800 hectares in 2014 compared to 61,200 hectares in 2013, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its latest "South-east Asia Opium Survey 2014 - Lao PDR, Myanmar" released on Monday morning.
The centre of cultivation is Myanmar, and especially Shan State. Volumes are still well below their peak in the late 1990s, but are creeping up as farmers living in poverty in remote areas get more cash for poppies than any other crop.
Together, Myanmar and Laos produced an estimated 762 tonnes of opium, which was refined into an estimated 76 tonnes of heroin and then trafficked to neighbouring countries and beyond, the report said.
The biggest market is China, which is growing and accounts for approximately 70 per cent of heroin users in Asia.
The number of heroin users in China increased by about half a million between 2007 and 2013; the current number is estimated to be more than 1.3 million.
Refining opium into heroin also involves another illegal trade: the smuggling of precursor chemicals like acetic anhydride to centres of drug production.
In a statement with the report, Bangkok-based UNODC Regional Representative for South-east Asia and the Pacific, Mr Jeremy Douglas, said: "We need to act."
"The Golden Triangle is the geographic centre of the Greater Mekong Subregion, and plans are well under way to expand transport connections and relax trade barriers and border controls, including around opium producing areas.
"The organised networks that benefit from South-east Asia's illicit drug trade are very well positioned to take advantage of regional integration," Mr Douglas wrote.
In an interview with The Straits Times, Mr Douglas said: "The problem is that the plans to move farmers away from opium poppy cultivation are not connected to the plans to increase the connectivity and integration of the region. They are operating separate from each other.
"This is also true of drug law enforcement or border control plans; they are often being run separately from the integration plans which are moving at a much faster speed."
The size of the trade is a clear threat to governments and the rule of law, the report said.
Based on the average price of heroin in South-east Asia, the trade in opiates and heroin in the region is estimated to exceed US$16.3 billion (S$21.2 billion).
But taken together with methamphetamines, the drug trade in the Golden Triangle, South-east Asia and East Asia - even without precursor chemicals and marijuana - is "conservatively estimated … at well over US$30 billion a year in sales," Mr Douglas said.
"That's bigger than the economy of Laos, and bigger than the economy of Cambodia. That's a lot of money and a lot of power and a big corrupting influence," he said.