Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel That Outwitted the CIA by Patrick Winn - review by Adam Brookes

Adam Brookes

Meth Comes to Myanmar

Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel That Outwitted the CIA


Icon Books 384pp £20

In the late 1990s a wave of pink methamphetamine pills washed through the illegal drug markets of Southeast Asia. The pills, the journalist Patrick Winn tells us, smelled faintly of vanilla and were stamped with the letters WY. They were a cut above the average meth pill – sturdier and more resistant to flame. When a user balanced one on a sliver of silver foil and applied heat, ‘a tendril of white smoke’ lifted from it. Inhaling the smoke brought ‘a more scintillating high’. 

The novel pink pills were manufactured in the mysterious, isolated regions of Myanmar known as Wa State. In Narcotopia, Winn gives us a depiction of this statelet at times as strange as a drug-induced dream. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), the military wing of the ruling United Wa State Party (UWSP), has functioned by turns as a colossal drug cartel and a revolutionary movement. The UWSA’s influence on the global narcotics trade has been immense. It has been a thorn in the side of a succession of governments in Myanmar, and the prodigious quantity of drugs it has exported has drawn the wrath of China and, notably, the United States. Winn brings the rise of Wa State to life in a compelling, atmospheric piece of narrative journalism.

Meth pills were not the Wa people’s first venture into narco-trafficking. Opium poppies flourish in the ragged highlands along Myanmar’s borders with Thailand, Laos and China, and have long provided a cash income to impoverished, isolated villagers there. The highland-dwelling Wa were beneficiaries of the heroin trade. A poverty-stricken people,

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter