Know Drugs, no Drugs: Horrors of Illicit Drugs

Drug abuse is not cool.

Illicit drugs cost lives and it is an absolute necessity for all stakeholders to fight this scourge of society.  Being aware of the risks of drug abuse is half the battle won.  

By Lee Kok Leong, Executive Editor, Maritime Fairtrade

The fatal consequences of abusing illicit drugs affect not only individuals but also place a heavy burden on their families and friends, businesses, and government resources.  Despite all the dangers, drug abuse persists.  Knowing the facts about the dangers of drug abuse is a key step to reducing demand for illicit drugs.  

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), drug use killed almost half a million people in 2019.  In 2020, around 275 million people used drugs worldwide, while over 36 million people suffered from drug use disorders.  Among drug addicts globally, 11 million are estimated to inject drugs, half of whom are living with Hepatitis C.  Opioids continue to account for the largest burden of disease attributed to drug use.  Alarmingly, research suggests a 11 percent increase in the number of people who use drugs globally by 2030. 

The illicit drug trade holds back a country’s economic and social development, negatively impacts the lives of the people and constitutes a fundamental threat to national security and stability.  On an individual level, the use of illicit drugs causes permanent physical and emotional damage, often leading to serious and lethal sickness and in many cases, users die prematurely from overdoses or other drug-associated illnesses, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, which are common among drug users, particularly those who inject drugs.  For users who are parents, their addiction or death leave their children in the care of relatives or in foster care.

To entice the younger generations and digital natives who are more familiar and comfortable with IT, drug cartels are leveraging on rapid technological innovation and use the dark web to sell drugs.  Drug markets on the dark web only emerged a decade ago but major ones are now worth at least US$315 million in annual sales.  Although this is just a fraction of overall drug sales, the trend is upwards moving with a fourfold increase between 2011 to mid-2017 and mid-2017 to 2020, which in all likelihood is going to usher in a globalized market where illicit drugs are more easily accessible but importantly, youth and young adults, who are the future pillars of any society, will be more exposed to addiction.

Putting a price of illicit drug use on business and economy

The economic impact on businesses whose employees abuse drugs can be significant too, often negatively affecting productivity and competitiveness. While many abusers are unable to attain or hold full-time employment, those who do put others at risk, particularly when employed in positions where even a minor degree of impairment can be catastrophic: airline pilots, air traffic controllers, train operators, and bus drivers, among others. They are also more prone to petty crimes, like stealing cash, supplies, equipment and products that can be sold to feed their drug habit.  In addition, their absenteeism, lost productivity and increased use of medical and insurance benefits cut into the profitability of a company.

The abuse of drugs is costly and if left unanswered, takes a heavy financial toll on the workplace and economy.  For example, the cost of drug abuse in the U.S. was estimated at US$193 billion in 2007, including US$120 billion in lost productivity, mainly due to participation in drug abuse treatment, incarceration, and premature death; US$11 billion in healthcare costs for drug treatment and drug‐related medical consequences; and US$61 billion in criminal justice costs, primarily due to criminal investigation, prosecution and incarceration, and victim costs.

Resilience of illicit drug market despite pandemic

The transnational drug cartels have swiftly resumed operations after the initial disruption at the onset of the pandemic by changing their modus operandi to adapt to the new situation.  Among the new tactics include smuggling increasingly larger shipments of illicit drugs per trip, using more overland and water-way routes, greater use of private planes, and an upsurge in the use of contactless methods to deliver drugs to end-consumers.  They also use lesser-regulated chemicals to produce illicit drugs, manufacture them in new locations that are hard for law enforcement to reach, and smuggle the drugs through new routes.

In Southeast Asia, UNODC said demand is largely driven by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and in addition to the traditional drug bases found in Myanmar’s Shan State, there are signs of new large-scale methamphetamine production in Cambodia where in 2020, officials raided five synthetic drug labs, four of which produced methamphetamine.  It was the first time such labs were found in Cambodia since 2014.  The cartels take advantage of the gap in law enforcement when authorities prioritize limited resources to contain the spread of Covid-19 and to enforce public health measures.  They also use new routes and transit hubs like Laos where seizures of both meth and precursor chemicals spiked, and Hong Kong where meth seizures increased tenfold from 2019 to 2020, including one 500-kilogram shipment sent from Mexico that was destined for Australia.

The resilience of the drug cartels during the pandemic has demonstrated once again their ability to adapt quickly to changed environments and circumstances.  For example, most countries have reported a rise in the use of cannabis during the pandemic. A rise in the non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs including fentanyl has also been observed.  In Asia, drug cartels flooded the region with synthetic narcotics worth tens of billions of dollars even as the global economy ground to a halt.  For instance, meth seizures in East and Southeast Asia surged 19 percent from 2019 to a new record-high in 2020.  According to the UNODC, the meth trade’s value was believed to be worth between US$30 billion and US$61 billion in 2019.

A more deadly synthetic drug

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, was first developed for pain management treatment of cancer patients.  It is usually applied in a patch on the skin. However, because of its powerful opioid properties, fentanyl is also used by drug abusers that are chasing intense, short-term high and temporary feelings of euphoria.  Similar to other opioids, fentanyl produces effects such as relaxation, pain relief, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction, and respiratory depression.  Due to its potency, fentanyl abuse brings with it a heightened risk of death as a result of overdosing.

Fentanyl, also known on the street as China Girl, Chinatown, and China White among others, is added to heroin to increase its potency, or is disguised as highly potent heroin.  Many users believe that they are buying heroin but actually do not know that they are in fact paying for fentanyl, which often result in overdose deaths. 

The amounts of fentanyl and its analogues seized globally have risen rapidly in recent years, and by around 60 percent in 2019 compared with a year earlier.  Overall, these amounts have risen twenty-fold since 2015.  Illicit fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico and the largest quantities were seized in North America.  While there are no reports of widespread abuse of fentanyl in Southeast Asia, there are signs that suggest the deadly synthetic drug is slowly but surely making inroads into the region in search of new customers.  Myanmar had seized a huge haul of liquid fentanyl May 2020, the first time the drug had been found in the Golden Triangle drug-producing region.  On March 1 2021, Singapore seized 200 vials of 20 mg of fentanyl, which were declared as “medicine” from Vietnam.  This was the first time fentanyl was seized in Singapore.

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Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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