The synthetic drug market in East and Southeast Asia is expanding and diversifying with the price of methamphetamines dropping to its lowest level in the past 10 years, while supplies of synthetic opioids have risen sharply, according to a new report issued Friday by the United Nations drug crimes agency.
The number of synthetic opioids identified among illicit drug supplies in the region jumped to 28 in 2019 from three in 2014, and agents are seizing the substances in new locations as organized crime expand its business, said the report from the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“It is hard to imagine that organized crime have again managed to expand the drug market, but they have,” said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a written statement.
The report, titled “Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: Latest Developments and Challenges,” confirms that the variety and volume of synthetic drugs have increased in the past year in the region’s thriving illegal drugs business.
“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,” Douglas said.
The production of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and more potent variations have become more concentrated with and around the Golden Triangle, the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers, a remote zone of limited government control, UNODC said.
A ramping up of methamphetamine manufacturing is also occurring in Cambodia and Vietnam as production facilities are dismantled in other parts of the region, consolidating drug production activities in the Lower Mekong region, the report said.
East and Southeast Asian nations have seen sustained increases in seizures of methamphetamines during the past decade – more than any other part of the world – with countries in the region reporting seizures of 115 tons of the drug in 2019, the report said. This figure excludes data from China, which confiscated almost 30 tons of methamphetamines on average over the last five years.
“[W]e are concerned Southeast Asia could become a source for other parts of the world while these substances get mixed into or displace part of the regional heroin supply,” the agency said in the statement.
‘An army of ants’
Thailand recorded the largest seizures of methamphetamines by a single country in East and Southeast Asia during 2018-2019 with more than 116 tons, as a result of the recent surge in the illicit manufacture in the Golden Triangle, UNODC reported.
Despite this, retail prices for both tablet and crystalline methamphetamines dropped by about two-thirds over the last decade, suggesting the widespread availability of the drugs.
“The factors that made methamphetamine prices cheaper is both production technology and capacity have been improved,” Major General Yingyos Thepjumnong, deputy commander of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau of the Royal Thai Police told BenarNews. “A mix of chemical formulas also helps reduce production costs.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those who sell the substance have found that it’s easier to deliver the drugs to small-scale users via parcel mail, and therefore to expand the market, he said
“We may not see large-sized smuggling operations because there are a lot of checkpoints during COVID-19,” Yingyos said. “But they have come in like an army of ants with easy access to the center of the city and transportation via postal parcel. It has become a new problem now.”
The UNODC said it was working closely with Thailand and other countries in the region through the Global SMART Program and the Mekong MOU on Drug Control to monitor the drug situation and provide advice on cooperation and detection activities
Niyom Termsrisuk, secretary-general of Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board, said cooperation with the U.N. agency and other nations was necessary to tackle the ongoing problem of illicit drugs in the region.
“Our partnership with UNODC and other Mekong countries is essential for success,” he said in a statement. “The challenge we face is significant, and we will only be able to make progress through regional and international cooperation.”
Besides methamphetamines and synthetic opioids, other drugs such as ecstasy, ketamine, and cannabinoids are now found across the region, UNODC said.
A major development in the region’s methamphetamine market in has been the supply of methamphetamine in crystalline form, particularly in Southeast Asia, which has been more pronounced and persistent compared to the illicit substance in tablet form, the report said.
China reports drop in arrests, usage
Data on drug use, arrests, and illicit drug manufacture and seizures, indicate a possible decrease in China’s illicit synthetic drug market in China.
The amount of crystal meth seized in 2018 — the latest year for which data is available — was the lowest reported since 2014.
While the number of registered users of synthetic drugs has fallen in China in recent years, methamphetamines still account for almost 60 percent of the country’s total number of registered drug users.
The production of methamphetamines has expanded in northeastern Myanmar in recent years, and annual seizures of the substance in both crystalline and tablet forms have increased significantly since 2017, the report said.
The types of substances confiscated there have diversified over the last two years, pointing to an increase in use of chemical substitutes that can be used in the synthetic or extraction processes of drug production in the Golden Triangle.
In Cambodia, the market for crystal meth continues to expand, with users of the drug forming the largest proportion of users in drug treatment centers in 2018, the report said. Despite significant annual seizures of crystal and tablet methamphetamine, average retail prices have dropped to their lowest level on record, indicating widespread availability.
Laos, which is a significant transit country for chemicals believed to be use in illicit drug manufacturing activities, has seen an increased inflow of drugs trafficked from the Golden Triangle, with a corresponding rise in the amount of crystalline methamphetamines seized annually in recent years.
Vietnamese authorities seized more than 5.5 tons of crystal meth in 2019, exceeding the combined seizures the country reported in the preceding five years, indicating a significant increase in the scale of methamphetamine trafficking targeting the country since late 2018, the report said.
Meanwhile, the average retail price of the tablets dropped to a record low of U.S. $1 each, indicating their wide availability on the Vietnamese market, the U.N. report said.
This report was produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok contributed reporting.