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A Centuries-Old History of Drug Use

DRUG problems in Thailand are not a new or recent phenomenon. While it's true that heroin use and transshipment increased markedly during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, there is a long and well-documented history of narcotic use and abuse in ''the land of smiles.''

''Over 600 years ago, King Ramathibodi I grew gravely concerned when he learned that his soldiers in the field were losing too many battles,'' says Thongchai Unekhlabh, director of Thanyarak Hospital, Thailand's largest substance-abuse facility with more than 650 patients.

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''His commanders informed the king that the troops smoked opium when they weren't fighting. But when they went to battle, they were cut off from their supply of opium, thus rendering them less fearsome and willing to fight.''

As recently as the late 19th century more than half of Thailand's government revenue was derived from taxing opium dens. King Mongut, seeing an opportunity to provide for his people, set up the Royal Thai Opium Monopoly. He used the tremendous profits from more than 2,500 opium dens to finance the construction of highways and fund other state projects.

And in modern, times, Thailand has been for decades the largest transshipment point from the Golden Triangle for the international heroin trade controlled by the sinister drug lord Khun Sa.

Newly elected Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-Archa has his own drug-related problem. Several members of his Chat Thai Party have been denied visas to visit the United States because of alleged connections to the Golden Triangle drug trade.

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