SPECIAL REPORT: Synthetic drug trafficking increases across Southeast Asia

A major strategy to cut the availability of illicit drugs is to disrupt the supply chain at the national borders, for example, at sea checkpoints, by having better port enforcement.

The United Nations warns there is a notable increase in synthetic drugs production in Southeast East Asia as seen in the record level of seizures.  Transnational crime syndicates are trafficking more drugs than before, not just within the region but further afield to Japan and South Korea.  By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

A new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warns that there has been a significant increase in synthetic drugs production in Southeast Asia over the past year.

The illicit drug market in the region has been undergoing a profound change for the better part of a decade, driven by increases in the production, trafficking and use of synthetic drugs.

A major strategy to cut the availability of illicit drugs is to disrupt the supply chain at the national borders, for example at sea checkpoints by having better port enforcement, as trafficking via maritime routes is still one of the popular methods.

To illustrate, the Container Control Program (CCP), a joint UNODC/World Customs Organization project working to boost the inspection of containers and detect illicit goods, is having positive success rate. It is fundamentally used to counter drug trafficking, but has now been expanded to include other illegal goods.

Since its inception, the program has resulted in the seizure of 487 containers of fraudulent and contraband goods alongside a further 195 containers of drugs. These seized drugs included more than 60 tons of cocaine, 49 tons of cannabis and 807 tons of precursor chemicals used in the production of synthetic drugs.

The CCP presently has 28 operational port control units across 14 countries. They are located in major illicit drug-producing regions, as well as along maritime trade routes for the transshipment of illicit drugs, precursor chemicals and counterfeit goods.

Double-edged sword

As the global economy becomes increasingly interconnected, opportunities for trade have spread around the world. Nevertheless, these opportunities also bring with them security implications.

Shipping lanes are the superhighways of global trade, of which 90 percent is conducted through the international maritime industry. However, this situation presents opportunities not only legitimate businesses, but also for transnational organized crime groups to transport illegal goods.

In a way, these cross-border criminal syndicates benefit from the strong growth of maritime trade, as they exploit legitimate shipping routes to move illegal drugs.

More often than not, shipping containers are used to transport illicit drugs. Because of the sheer volume of containers transported around the world annually, effective monitoring and enforcement programs are difficult to implement.

During 2017, 752 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) are transported by sea. In Singapore, an average container ship calling at the ports carries 800 times the amount of cargo carried by a Boeing 747 plane. As it is, less than two percent of shipping containers are screened globally.

Moreover, to complicate matters, the industry is facing the problems of rapid increase of sophisticated concealment methods, longstanding issue of corruption, limited manpower, complex port processes and systems, and a lack of trust and coordination between government agencies and the private sector.

Therefore, this festering crisis poses a grave danger to international security and to the global trade supply chain which is vital for economic growth.

Unprecedented levels

According to the latest statistics from UNODC, more than 116 tons of methamphetamine, a kind of synthetic drug, were seized in the region in 2018, compared with 87 tons in 2017.

But the total amount seized last year, which already represents a three-fold increase from 2013, may be even higher, as some countries have not confirmed their final numbers.

“Data on seizures, prices, use and treatment all point to continuing expansion of the methamphetamine market in East and Southeast Asia”, said Tun Nay Soe, UNODC Inter-regional Program Coordinator.

“Seizures of methamphetamine in 2018 were once again a record, yet street prices of the drug decreased in many parts of the region indicating very high and increasing levels of availability.”

The scale of the increase in seizures of methamphetamine has been significant across the region, but in particular in countries of the Mekong. In Thailand alone, 515 million methamphetamine tablets were seized in 2018, 17 times the total amount of the drug seized a decade ago.

Aside from China, annual seizures of methamphetamine in other countries also reached historic highs in 2018.

“Volumes of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs originating from the Golden Triangle to Thailand have reached unprecedented levels,” said Niyom Termsrisuk, Secretary General of the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) of Thailand.

“Large amounts of synthetic drugs have been trafficked to neighboring countries in the region, but also further.

“The challenge is growing, and it is critical we work with UNODC and the region to curtail flows of precursor chemicals that are being used to produce methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs.”

Drugs originating from the Golden Triangle, the area bordering Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, are not limited to being circulated within the region, where supply vastly exceeds market demand and the price is thus low. The drugs are trafficked to shores farther afield, as far away as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Emergence of new psychoactive substances

While the market for methamphetamine continues to expand rapidly in East and Southeast Asia, a wide range of new psychoactive substances (NPS), have also emerged in the region.

By 2018, a total of 434 NPS were detected in the region, including potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its analogues. They are powerful synthetic opioids which are also being produced and trafficked in and from the region to North America and recently Australia.  They are then mixed into the opiate and heroin markets to maximize profits.

The emergence of NPS is a significant challenge for governments and people in the region.

“Aside from methamphetamine which is getting most of the attention because of the surge in seizures and street price drops, synthetic opioids and other drugs have also been found across the region”, said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

He said that governments are starting to come to terms with how profoundly synthetics are changing the drug market, and they are committed to finding solutions.

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