Drug production spike in S-E Asia calls for new approach to end trade: UN

In this photo taken on April 28, 2021, police officers arrange drug evidence after securing 2.5 tonnes of crystal methamphetamine from a drug network spanning South-east Asia in Jakarta. PHOTO: REUTERS/ANTARA FOTO

WASHINGTON - Close to 1.2 tonnes of heroin and methamphetamine were discovered by the Thai authorities last Friday (June 18).

The drugs had been hidden in fruit containers in a mangrove forest in the southern province of Satun, to be picked up during high tide and transported to Malaysia.

The find made evident that instead of abating, the tsunami of methamphetamines flooding the region is growing.

A report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that was released on June 10 confirms that roughly 170 tonnes of methamphetamine were seized in the region last year - a 19 per cent increase over the 142 tonnes seized in 2019.

Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam accounted for 71 per cent of total seizures.

But seizures are the tip of the proverbial iceberg; all they make clear is that despite tighter border controls on account of the Covid-19 pandemic, transnational organised crime groups thrived in 2020.

Organised criminal groups are highly mobile and constantly look for areas where they can make methamphetamines, said Mr Inshik Sim, research officer for illicit drugs at the UNODC in Bangkok.

"We should not underestimate organised crime groups," Mr Sim told The Straits Times' Asian Insider, citing their ability to adapt.

South Asia

Trafficking from Myanmar to South Asia is an additional and growing concern.

"Over a decade, the methamphetamine market (in South-east Asia) has grown every year," Mr Sim said.

Bangladesh shows a similar pattern, he said. "About a decade ago, only 1.3 million meth tablets were seized in Bangladesh. But in 2020, they seized over 40 million.

"The most concerning thing here is that there is potential for further growth in Bangladesh and India when you look at the population. Bangladesh has 163 million people and India has about 1.4 billion people. So it is a really big market that can attract organised crime groups to constantly target or increasingly target these two countries."

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The approach to controlling precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of synthetic drugs must change, Mr Sim said.

The chemical trade underpins the synthetic drugs business. Enforcement authorities in the region have been focusing on ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are direct chemical precursors required for the manufacture of methamphetamine.

But while these are used, non-controlled chemicals that are not really monitored by authorities in the region can also be used to make methamphetamine, Mr Sim said. And organised crime groups are constantly looking for new chemicals or new methods to manufacture methamphetamine.

It is really important that authorities look for non-controlled chemicals, he said.


The report documents the emergence of production - and seizure of laboratories - in Cambodia and a shift of trafficking to - and through - Laos.

According to the report, in Laos, "since 2018, seizures of chemicals suspected to be destined for the illicit manufacture of drugs in the Golden Triangle area have increased exponentially, reaching more than 125 tonnes in 2020, or more than fivefold the combined amount seized in the preceding five years".

In this photo taken on April 28, 2021, Indonesian police show drug evidence during a media conference in Jakarta. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Erlend Falch, officer in charge at the UNODC in Laos, told Asian Insider that as a least developed country, Laos had few resources to counter organised criminal groups.

Asked what needed to change in regional responses, Mr Falch said: "We need to move into a more intelligence-based type of law enforcement.

"That means better data collection, use of data to produce intelligence, more information sharing, more cooperation between different countries in the region, and better investigations - ideally investigations that backtrack from seizures."

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