A report released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok, Thailand, shows that the use of synthetic drugs, while stabilising in most developed countries, is worsening in developing countries, for example in East and South-East Asia and the Middle East (especially in the Gulf countries).
UNODC’s reveals that the use of these drugs, on an annual basis, exceeds that of cocaine and heroin combined. The global market for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) is estimated at US$ 65 billion, wholesale and retail combined.
After substantial increases in the late 1990s – when some drugs like meth were considered public enemy number one – the use of synthetic drugs in North America, Europe and Oceania has stabilised and even declined. But the problem has shifted to new markets over the past few years.
Asia, with its huge population and increasing affluence, is driving demand. In 2006, almost half of Asian countries reported an increase in methamphetamine use. In the same year, Saudi Arabia seized more than 12 tonnes of amphetamine (mostly in the form known as Captagon) accounting for a staggering one quarter of all ATS seized in the world (sky-rocketing from 1% in 2000/1). In 2007 the amount increased again to almost 14 tonnes. In South Africa, the number of seized methamphetamine laboratories has consistently gone up for the past five years while domestic consumption has increased.
The wrong tonic for fast times
Launching the report in Bangkok, the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, warned that ATS is being used as “a cheap and available tonic for our fast and competitive times – for entertainment in discos (mostly in the West), and for greater stamina in assembly lines and behind a steering wheel (in the East)”.
Mr. Costa warned that “synthetic drugs are falsely perceived as being harmless: ‘pills do not kill or spread HIV/AIDS’, it is said. This leads to benign neglect in attitudes, policy and enforcement that only slows down remedial action”.
“This is dangerous”, said the head of UNODC, “because while users experience increased confidence, sociability and energy, they can quickly become dependent and suffer serious mental health problems or even brain damage. Paranoia, kidney failure, violence, internal bleeding are among the side effects of the drug”.
Adaptive and elusive suppliers
ATS production appears to have stabilised worldwide at about 500 metric tonnes per year, but with significant geographical differences: decreasing lab seizures in, for example, the United States and the European Union, have been offset by a rise in ATS production in neighbouring countries, like Canada and Mexico in North America, and Turkey in South-East Europe. Recently, the single largest seizure of ecstasy ever recorded, 4.4 tonnes, originating in Western Europe, was made in Australia (which is still struggling with a major synthetic drugs problem).
Unlike plant-based drugs like cocaine and heroin, the production of synthetic drugs is hard to trace since the ingredients are readily available for legitimate industrial purposes. Supply chains are often short. Meth can be cooked up in the kitchen, and pills can be pressed in a garage. “Suppliers quickly adapt to the latest trends, and cater to local markets. When one lab is shut, another opens. When one type of precursor chemical is unavailable, producers switch to an alternative”, said Mr. Costa. “This presents a challenge to law enforcement since production is so close to retail outlets”, observed the UN drugs czar. “Therefore, greater emphasis should be put on prevention”.
“A decade ago, synthetic drugs were a cottage industry. Now they are big business controlled by organised crime syndicates involved in all phases of this illicit trade – from smuggling precursor chemicals, to manufacturing the drugs and trafficking”, warned the Executive Director of UNODC. This is bringing rapid changes in ATS markets, including in the size and sophistication of clandestine laboratories.
“Opium and coca are mostly grown in areas outside government control, for example in unstable regions of Afghanistan and Colombia. The same pattern applies to ATS. The Report shows the displacement of industrial-scale labs, which can produce hundreds of millions of tablets, to parts of the world where law enforcement is weak or corrupt, or local officials are complicit”, said Mr. Costa.
Lack of will, information, and resources
The countries facing the brunt of the ATS onslaught are also the least-prepared to cope. “Some countries are in denial about the problem, and do not even report their situation to the United Nations. Others are ill-equipped to fight the pandemic, in terms of information gathering, regulatory frameworks, law enforcement, forensics, or health care”, said Mr. Costa.
Information gathering presents a challenge. Supply estimates are extrapolated from seizures of precursors and ATS end-products; demand estimates from very rough-and-ready calculations of the number of people taking the drugs. Forensic research is needed to analyse and monitor evolving trends.
A SMART answer
“The world needs to get smart about ATS before the problem is out of control”, said Mr. Costa. In Bangkok, he therefore launched UNODC’s SMART programme (Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends). The Programme, which is starting operations in Asia, is designed to reduce the world’s information deficit about amphetamine-type stimulants. This will be done by working with governments – particularly in vulnerable regions – to improve their capacity to gather, analyse and share information on ATS products, their use, and on trafficking routes.
“This should give us a better sense of how big the problem of synthetic drugs really is, and what more can be done to deal with it in terms of prevention, treatment and law enforcement”, said Mr. Costa.
The 2008 Global ATS assessment is available at http://www.unodc.org/documents/scientific/ATS/Global-ATS-Assessment-2008-Web.pdf
For information, please contact:
Programme Associate: Law Enforcement and Drug Demand Reduction
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – Regional Office for Southern Africa
Telephone: (+27) 12 342 2424