Growing Meth Demand Sees Record Seizures in Asia: UN

By Joshua Lipes
china-meth-bust-dec-2013.jpg Armed Chinese paramilitary policemen stand guard around crystal meth and raw materials for drug production they seized during a raid in Guangdong province, Dec. 29, 2013.

Growing demand for methamphetamine in Asia has seen seizures of the drug triple over a five-year period to record levels, with China accounting for nearly half of the amount reported by regional enforcement agencies over the same period of time, according to the United Nations.

Use of methamphetamine and other amphetamine-type stimulants (ATSs) is a “major problem” in the region, which is the world’s largest market for the drugs, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report.

ATS seizures in Asia saw an increase from about 13 tons in 2008 to just under 40 tons in 2012, it said.

The rise was primarily attributable to the increase of methamphetamine seizures, which the report said increased three-fold from less than 12 tons in 2008 to 36 tons in 2012.

Methamphetamine, or meth, is an extremely addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system.

While countries such as Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand were major contributors to the reported seizures, China accounted for the vast majority of methamphetamines recovered by authorities over the five-year period, UNODC said.

“A rapid rise in seizures have particularly been reported in mainland China, where detected methamphetamine has risen annually from 6 tons in 2008 to more than 16 tons in 2012, making up about 45 percent of total methamphetamine seizures for the region that year,” the report said.

In Thailand, seizures increased over the same period from about 2 tons to more than 10 tons and in Myanmar from 0.1 tons to 2 tons.

UNODC said that aside from a slight decrease of methamphetamine seizures in Malaysia from 1.1 tons to 0.9 tons, seizures increased in Indonesia from 0.7 tons to more than 2.1 tons over the same period and in Laos from 0.1 tons to 0.9 tons.

Growing demand

The report called ATS use “a major problem in large parts of the [Asian] region,” and specifically in China, where ATS users accounted for the second largest share, at 19.1 percent, of people receiving drug treatment in the country, after those treated for opioid use, at 79.7 percent.

It cited a “large increase” of methamphetamine use in mainland China in 2012, as opposed to use of other ATSs such as amphetamine, which has remained stable, and ecstasy, which has shown some decline.

In Cambodia, out of an estimated 1,300 people treated for drugs by community-based treatment services in 2012, 86.4 percent were treated for ATS use, the report said.

Specifically, experts perceived methamphetamine to be “the second most commonly used drug in Cambodia after heroin since 2010.”

Myanmar saw an annual increase in the number of people admitted for treatment related to ATS use at the Yangon Mental Health Hospital over the past five years, the report said, adding that a study on ATS use among high school students in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina in the north of the country found that methamphetamines were the most used drug under international control.

In Laos, UNODC said that methamphetamine users accounted for more than 50 percent of people treated for ATS use in 2012 at the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre in the capital Vientiane.

Production bases

UNODC said that as the Asian market for methamphetamines becomes more lucrative, the number of producers within the region is increasing to meet demand.

“The rise in demand in Asian markets for methamphetamines and emerging demand for new psychoactive substances is being met by large production bases in neighboring China, Myanmar, and the Philippines,” the report said.

UNODC said that in 2012, authorities in China reported that 228 dismantled methamphetamine laboratories accounted for the largest share of all 326 drug laboratories dismantled that year. Data on the number of laboratories intended for specific drug manufacture up until 2011 was unclear.

“Large amounts of methamphetamine seized in China and originating in the country are perceived to be intended for the domestic market,” the report said, though methamphetamine seized in some countries—including Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines—in 2012 are thought to have originated from China.

Meanwhile, UNODC said, most methamphetamine originating in Myanmar “is intended for trafficking to neighboring countries.”

“Methamphetamine is trafficked from Myanmar to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, via Lao PDR, though the drug also continues to be trafficked to these countries directly from Myanmar by sea,” it said, adding that there are indications that large quantities of the substance are also smuggled to China.

“According to expert perception, a large share of methamphetamine pills seized in China in 2012 originated from Myanmar,” the report said.

Psychoactive substances

UNODC said that the Asia region had also become “a large and established market for New Psychoactive Substances (NPS),” including ketamine—an anesthetic largely used in veterinary medicine—which has shown growing demand “most notably in East Asia.”

It said that between 5 and 6 tons of ketamine has been seized annually in China and Hong Kong since 2009 and that the seizures have accounted for almost 60 percent of the global total between 2008 and 2011, except for 2010 when they accounted for about 42 percent.

A total of 81 ketamine laboratories were discovered in mainland China in 2012, prior to which another 44 ketamine laboratories were dismantled in 2007, the report said.

UNODC said that high levels of khat seizures “also indicate an emerging threat in East and South-East Asia and Oceania.”

Between 2008 and 2012, about 6.4 tons of khat—an amphetamine-like stimulant which is said to cause euphoria—was seized in China and Hong Kong, which were reported to be the origins of more than half of all khat seized in the U.S. in 2012, the report said.

“Khat manufacture in the region may heighten the risk of an expanding market in the future,” UNODC warned.

Spreading threat

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative to Southeast Asia and the Pacific, called the impact of synthetic drugs—especially methamphetamine and NPSs—on the police, court, prison, and health care systems of states in the region “tremendous.”

"This rising threat of synthetic drugs is compounded for … Asia because the production epicenters of amphetamine-type stimulants and new psychoactive substances are nearby,” he said in a statement.

“States throughout the region are deeply concerned about illicit drug production, the diversion of the precursor chemicals needed to make methamphetamines and new psychoactive substances, organized crime syndicates, and vulnerable borders.”

But the lucrative drug market makes combating the problem extremely difficult, he said.

“Roughly a third of the estimated U.S. $90 billion illegal economy in Asia comes from drugs,” Douglas told Agence France-Presse.

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