Meth spreading across region as supply spikes

The Golden Triangle's methamphetamine problem is spreading beyond the Mekong region, with high volumes of the drug being seized in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Figures revealed yesterday show that from 2008 to last year, meth tablet seizures in the region increased from 50 million to more than 450 million.

The data was released by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at the start of a two-day anti-drug conference in Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw.

Figures also show meth prices across the region falling. Between 2014 and 2016, meth prices hit a low of US$2 (S$2.70) per tablet in Thailand and US$2.20 in Myanmar.

Methamphetamine and heroin are currently estimated to be worth US$40 billion in the regional drug market, according to UNODC adviser Tao Zhiqiang.

In a snapshot of what law enforcers are facing, late last Friday, in the sparsely populated hills of northern Thailand, a military task force tried to stop a truck with no licence plates - but the driver sped away. When the troops caught up with the truck and searched it, they found 2.4 billion baht (S$100 million) worth of meth - 7.8 million pills and 50kg of crystal meth - packed into 39 fertiliser sacks.

The UNODC's analysis also underlines the strong link between meth supplies and conflict zones, mainly in northern Myanmar.

Mr Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC regional representative based in Bangkok, told The Straits Times: "We have seen evidence that major regional organised crime groups have migrated operations into the special regions (of Myanmar) and nearby conflict areas of northern Shan state, and they are producing meth there on an unprecedented scale."

Several ethnicity-based militia control territories in northern Myanmar. One of them is the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

In January, the US Treasury Department designated Chinese national Zhao Wei, who controls the Kings Romans Casino in Laos, and others in his organisation for an asset freeze over his connections with the UWSA. The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control said: "Operating largely through the Kings Romans Casino, the Zhao Wei (transnational criminal organisation) facilitates the storage and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine and other narcotics for illicit networks, including the UWSA, operating in neighbouring Burma (Myanmar)."

It added: "Since 2014, the Thai, Lao and Chinese authorities have seized large narcotics shipments that have been traced to the Kings Romans Casino."

Mr Zhao has denied accusations that he is linked to illicit activities.

Laos is particularly vulnerable to organised crime, Dr John Coyne, an expert on border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, told ST. And "ungoverned spaces" were increasing in Myanmar, with northern Myanmar a production hub and Laos a transshipment hub, he added.

Frequent, and large, seizures of meth by law enforcement across the region on an almost weekly basis had not led to any shortage that would, in theory, drive prices up. Instead, prices are down - which meant much more meth was being manufactured, Dr Coyne said.

Also, the opening up of more trading routes under regional initiatives was facilitating the spread of meth, he said. But the authorities face limited options in dealing with remote production areas outside the reach of the state authorities.

The UNODC hopes to broker solutions. One key objective at the conference: determining ways to choke off supplies of the precursor chemicals used to make these drugs. "The drugs may be produced and come from northern Myanmar but... precursors to make the drugs come from India and China," Mr Douglas said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2018, with the headline 'Meth spreading across region as supply spikes'. Print Edition | Subscribe