Abuse of synthetic drugs rising in developing countries, says UN report

Antonio Maria Costa

9 September 2008 – The use of synthetic drugs such as amphetamine, methamphetamine (meth) and ecstasy are on the rise in developing countries, including parts of East and South-East Asia and the Middle East, according to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Asia, with its large population and increasing prosperity, is fuelling demand, says UNODC, whose 2008 Global Assessment reveals that the worldwide market for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) is an estimated $65 billion. Annually, its use surpasses that of cocaine and heroin combined.

ATS is being used as “a cheap and available tonic for our fast and competitive times – for entertainment in discos (mostly in the West), and for greater stamina in assembly lines and behind a steering wheel (in the East),” UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said at the launch of the report in Bangkok.

He warned that the perception that synthetic drugs are harmless can be dangerous. “While users experience increased confidence, sociability and energy, they can quickly become dependent and suffer serious mental health problems or even brain damage. Paranoia, kidney failure, violence, internal bleeding are among the side effects.”

The Assessment shows that while the use of synthetic drugs has stabilized and even decreased in North America and Europe, the problem has shifted to new markets over the past few years.

In 2006, almost half of Asian countries reported an increase in methamphetamine use. That same year, Saudi Arabia seized more than 12 tonnes of amphetamine – one quarter of all ATS seized globally. In 2007 the amount increased to almost 14 tonnes. Meanwhile, the number of seized methamphetamine laboratories in South Africa has gone up consistently for the past five years while domestic consumption has increased.

Recently, the single largest seizure of ecstasy ever recorded, 4.4 tonnes, originating in Western Europe, was made in Australia, which is still struggling with a major synthetic drugs problem.

UNODC notes that the production of synthetic drugs is hard to trace since the ingredients are readily available for legitimate industrial purposes. Methamphetamine, for instance, can be cooked up in the kitchen, and pills can be pressed in a garage.

“Suppliers quickly adapt to the latest trends, and cater to local markets. When one lab is shut, another opens. When one type of precursor chemical is unavailable, producers switch to an alternative,” said Mr. Costa. “This presents a challenge to law enforcement since production is so close to retail outlets. Therefore, greater emphasis should be put on prevention.”

He added that the countries facing the brunt of the problem are also the least prepared to deal with it. To assist countries, UNODC has launched the SMART programme (Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends), through which it will work with governments to improve their capacity to gather, analyse and share information on ATS products, their use, and on trafficking routes.

“This should give us a better sense of how big the problem of synthetic drugs really is, and what more can be done to deal with it in terms of prevention, treatment and law enforcement,” Mr. Costa said.


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