CHIANG RAI – The United Nations says it sees an escalation in the production and use of amphetamines and synthetic drugs as a new threat for communities in Asia.
In northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, the weekend seizure of almost two million methamphetamine pills came as traffickers attempted to breach a police checkpoint.
One trafficker was shot dead as a combined force of soldiers and police confronted the traffickers near in the infamous Golden Triangle region of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
News of such large seizures of methamphetamines and potent synthetic drugs and heroin come with increasing frequency, even for a region long known at the frontline of drug trafficking.
A recent assessment by The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlighted a massive escalation in methamphetamine production and seizure rates.
“A total of 287 million methamphetamine tablets were seized in East and South East Asia in 2015, a more than two-fold increase compared to 2011,” the UN report said.
But synthetic drugs, also known as new psychoactive substances, are also evident and a major contributor to a drug overdose epidemic.
The UNODC said Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam had also “perceived an increase in the use of methamphetamine tablets in 2015”.
Cambodia, China, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam also all reported increases in use and trafficking of crystalline methamphetamine – a liquid form of the drug that is injected.
The production and trafficking of methamphetamine and heroin within and from the region generates an estimated $40 billion annually and UNODC data show the flow of illicit drugs continues to rise across the Greater Mekong Subregion.
Methamphetamine – known in Thai as ‘ya ba’ – has long been a staple in the illegal drugs trade.
The new threats in synthetic drugs include fentanyl, which the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says is “50 to 100 times” more potent than opioids such as morphine.
From clandestine laboratories in Asia, synthetic drugs reach markets as far away as North America, where the U.S. is witnessing up to 60,000 deaths a year from opioid drug overdoses.
Inshik Sim, a UNODC information analyst in Thailand, said the trends towards synthetic drugs are “alarming.”
“If you compare seizures of drug types between the opiates and synthetic drugs, basically seizures of methamphetamine increased by nearly sevenfold over the last decade – while those of heroin are virtually stable,” Sim told VOA.
He said increases in methamphetamine use have also raised concerns in China, Singapore, and Malaysia.
“Overall at the regional level now we can say that methamphetamine has become the primary drug of concern in the region,” he said.
Olivier Lermet, a UNODC regional advisor, said the factors driving the escalation in amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) use reflect changing economic circumstances.
Lermet, in an email to VOA, said ATS drugs were easy to produce, with clandestine laboratories based at strategic locations close to markets, “plus the increased inter connectivity of the ASEAN region enables a fast flow of goods and persons.”
An emerging middle class and rising incomes have also led to “more consumers” – both in urban and non-urban regions – with consumption by men and women, and not limited to the youth market.
The UNODC said crime syndicates, including those in northeastern Myanmar and eastern China as well as in Taiwan, play “a significant role in methamphetamine manufacturing and trafficking in the region.”
Traffickers target high income markets, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. “In fact, seizures of crystalline methamphetamine at the borders of these four nations have increased rapidly in recent years,” the UNODC said.
The UN has led calls for countries to take on a more “balanced response to drugs, with a robust health pillar as a fundamental element of national policies. ”
But Southeast Asia has been slow to adopt reforms and has doubled down on the so-called “war on drugs.”
In the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, more than 7,000 people have been killed by police and unidentified gunmen.
In Thailand up to 70 percent of all 300,000 prisoners in jail have been sentenced on drug related charges and Indonesia has declared a “narcotics emergency.”
But civil society groups say there is need for reform to combat drug use.
They say existing programs of compulsory centers for drug users (CCDUs) should be phased out towards comprehensive systems of voluntary community-based treatment and complimentary health, harm reduction and social support services.
In Thailand’s slum community of Klong Toey, Joe Maier, a Catholic priest who runs charity projects in the area, said there has been little government support to assist communities to provide alternatives against illicit drug use.
“They never have put money into anything. So it’s nothing new. They never have dumped huge amounts of money into sports. The government does not see sports fields, athletics and sport programs and sports heroes as combating drugs,” Maier said.
By Ron Corben