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A Gigantic Meth Bust in Thailand Suggests Coronavirus Isn’t Hurting the Drug Market

“While the world has shifted its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, all indications are that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels.”
03 July 2020, 11:55am
thailand drugs afp
Royal Thai Police personnel film 1.42 metric tons of seized "ice" during a press conference in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat on July 3, 2020. Madaree TOHLALA / AFP

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Thai authorities intercepted a massive shipment of 1.42 metric tons of crystal methamphetamine en route to Malaysia early Thursday morning, lending further evidence to suspicions that drug production in Southeast Asia is in the midst of a major spike—one unaffected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Malaysian outlet Bernama, two suspects were arrested in connection with the shipment of “ice,” worth a total of 285 million baht, or about $9.1 million. The two Thai nationals were allegedly paid 600,000 baht ($19,300) for the delivery.

The ice, packaged in 35 large bags, was found in a trailer carrying iron bars on its way from Bangkok to Tak Bai. Once the truck reached the Thailand-Malaysia border, another person was allegedly scheduled to carry the drugs into Malaysia.

The suspects, however, were intercepted in Narathiwat, some 35 kilometers from the border.

While 1.42 tons is without a doubt a major bust, it’s only equivalent to about 1 percent of the total amount of meth seized in Thailand in 2019—the highest recorded amount in a single country in Southeast and East Asia.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has seen an explosion of the methamphetamine market, with countries seeing record low street prices and record high seizures. In Thailand, meth seizures multiplied tenfold between 2017 and 2019.

“While the world has shifted its attention to the COVID-19 pandemic, all indications are that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels in the region,” said Jeremy Douglas, of the Southeast Asia branch of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, following the release of a May report.

The report showed an alarming rate of expansion and diversification of the meth market in Southeast Asia. And while the stimulant has become cheaper than ever before, the purity of the drug remains high.

A specialty of Southeast Asia, “yaba”—or “crazy pill” in Thai—is a mixture of caffeine and methamphetamine, sometimes flavored like candy. With a per-tablet price of only around 80 baht (around $2.60), the drug is well within the means of even low-wage workers, many of whom take the drug to deal with grueling jobs, according to a Reuters report.

In the Philippines, a powdered form of meth known as “shabu” is the drug of choice, and was once present in 90 percent of the capital region’s neighborhoods. However, in spite of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs—which has left tens of thousands dead—street prices for meth have fallen almost 20 percent since he took office, suggesting more drugs are making their way onto the streets.

When They Killed Our Men

“Seizures are being made in new locations as organized crime continues to push the limits of the business,” the UNODC stated in their report. “Production is known to migrate into places with deep governance problems like the Golden Triangle.”

But while drug manufacturing activity has always been high in the Golden Triangle, meth production is being further consolidated in the Lower Mekong region.

With Myanmar being the world’s primary crystal meth producer, Malaysia and Thailand have been used as corridors for couriers to repackage and transport drugs into other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, major destinations for the drug.

Two million speed pills packed in sacks of fertilizer—with a market value of 80 million baht ($2.57 million)—were just two weeks ago while being shipped from northern to southern Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported. Four suspects were arrested by the same regional force that found the 1.42-ton stash of ice on Thursday.