Methamphetamine seizures in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania have exploded in recent years, nearly quadrupling from some 11 tons in 2008 to 42 tons in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). From highly pure crystal meth that fetches prices as high as $800 per gram in South Korea to diluted tablets that costs only $1.50 each in Vietnam, the three regions together now make up the largest market in the world for amphetamine-type stimulants, which is dominated by meth.
"This significant increase might be partly the result of effective law enforcement measures, but also points to expanding production and trafficking to and through the region," remarked Tun Nay Soe, East Asia program coordinator for the UN's Global SMART Program, which monitors synthetic drugs. "Unfortunately, the preliminary data we have received for the past year indicates that supply and demand have continued to rise for both types of methamphetamine."
Economic growth and increasingly interlinked markets have allowed both methamphetamine and the chemicals used in its production to flow throughout the Pacific region. The UNODC points to both China and Myanmar as epicenters of synthetic drug production, including meth. Myanmar, where various areas remain outside of the government's control, is also the second largest producer of opium in the world, and supplies much of East Asia's heroin. Last year, the UNODC cited a "two-way trade involving chemicals going in and heroin coming out of the Golden Triangle," a largely lawless area that includes border regions of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand.
Precursor chemicals for drugs like methamphetamine, which are often sourced from China, have in recent years been seized as far away as Mexico. UN drug trackers say that Asian markets are now buying up so much of what is produced locally that traffickers in North America, West Africa, and Western Asia have turned their eyes toward the region.
"They definitely source these precursor chemicals from Asia, and they produce over there and try to push back to our region," Tun Nay Soe told VICE News, referring to Mexican drug cartels. "Once they see it is highly valuable for them, I'm afraid they will start expanding their business in the region."
The use of cheap tablets containing varying amounts of methamphetamine — or sometimes none at all — has spread at breakneck speed in Asia. The UNODC reported the seizure in the region of some 250 million tablets, often referred to locally as "yaba" or "yama," in 2013 — an eight-fold rise from 2008. Over the same period, seizures of pricier crystal meth doubled to around 14 tons.
The pills are often used by poor consumers in Southeastern Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Soe said that laborers have taken to buying the cheap tablets "when they feel tired." Drugs containing a variety of synthetic substances that are sometimes sold as methamphetamine or ecstasy have also become popular in the region's club scene, he added.
In its findings, the UNODC also tracked so-called "new psychoactive substances," which are meant to mimic illicit drugs while evading existing legal prohibitions. Countries in the region have reported some 137 such substances to the UNODC as of last November — a substantial rise from the 34 it was notified of in 2009.
UN researchers further highlighted seizures of ketamine, a dissociative tranquilizer that remains uncontrolled under UN drug conventions — unlike, for example, morphine — but which has been heavily regulated in Asia. This year, China called a vote at the UN on scheduling ketamine but was met with considerable resistance because the drug is commonly used as a vital painkiller in poorer countries, particularly in Africa, so the vote was postponed. This week's report notes that China is in fact the source of illicit ketamine trafficking through much of Asia, and not the other way around.
Drug policy experts say that hardline laws in many Asian nations are not helping to curtail problematic drug use there. In Southeast Asia, the regional bloc ASEAN has insisted on a plan to make their countries "drug free," a fanciful goal that other countries have slowly moved away from. Meanwhile, states like Indonesia continue to execute alleged traffickers, including numerous foreigners, for drug crimes.
Sou conceded that data for Asia is far from perfect, and that seizures do not necessarily translate into local drug use. Gloria Lai, the Manilla-based senior policy officer at the International Drug Policy Consortium, told VICE News that UNODC's focus on seizures and overall statistics detracts attention from what advocates say should be the primary focus of interventions: public health.
"The greater concern is that even if such data were verifiable, it does not show the consequence of such drug markets for security, social well-being, and the health of communities in the region," she said. "The report notes the numbers of people accessing drug treatments, but not the quality and effectiveness of such drug treatment services."
Treatment in many Asian countries might entail mandatory rehabilitation, and interdiction efforts are often vaguely defined, giving wide scope to local authorities to crack down on users who may need healthcare and could benefit from community-based treatment, which the UN says it prefers.
This April, China announced the results of one such massive crackdown, which it said resulted in more than 600,000 drug users being "punished" since October, while another 133,000 were arrested for drug-related crimes.
In China, as in many Asian countries, heroin and opiates have long been the most popular illicit substances. But local officials say that the use of amphetamine-type stimulants now rivals, if not surpasses, opiate use. Last week, China's National Narcotics Control Commission said that the country had some 14 million drug addicts in 2014, among them 2.96 million who are officially registered with authorities. Of those, about half — 1.46 million — said that they had used synthetic drugs like meth.
Across all drug classes, illicit use in China is significantly lower than in the United States. But meth is an exception, according to official Chinese figures, with the rate of use at least double of the rate in the US.
Khat and kratom are two other drugs highlighted in the UNODC report, both of them relatively mild natural stimulants. Khat is a shrub that is commonly chewed in East Africa and in areas of the Middle East, while kratom is a tree that is indigenous to Southeast Asia, where it has been used traditionally for centuries — but cathinone, one of the chemicals in the tree, is used in the production of synthetic drugs.
Tom Blickman, a researcher at the Transnational Institute's Drugs and Democracy Program, told VICE News that the UNODC's concern over kratom is overblown, especially given its role as an alternative to harder drugs.
"One wonders why the UNODC is spending so much of its scarce financial and human resources on a biased monitoring of these substances," he said, noting that kratom in particular is used in the treatment of opium, heroin, and methamphetamine addiction. "To demonize these substances is counterproductive."
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