Fact Sheet No. 2


United Nations General Assembly
Special Session on the World Drug Problem

New York, 8-10 June 1998


The illicit manufacture, trafficking, sale and abuse of drugs worldwide, and the diversion from legitimate commerce of the chemicals used to process and refine those drugs, have become an increasingly serious problem in recent years. They pose a grave threat to the health and stability of society. Effective systems of control and appropriate sanctions are needed to prevent and punish such activities.

A variety of precursor chemicals are required for the illicit manufacture of amphetamines and other synthetic drugs, and for the illicit processing of drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. For example, methamphetamine is manufactured illicitly by using ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as a starting material. However, these chemicals also have licit uses. Ephedrine is an ingredient in many cough medicines and pseudoephedrine is widely available in over-the-counter nasal decongestants. Acetone, utilized to refine cocaine, is also a common solvent for cleaning paintbrushes and removing nail varnish. Potassium permanganate is used to purify cocaine, but also has a legitimate application as a disinfectant and water purifier. Acetic anhydride, which is used to process heroin, is also widely used in the licit manufacture of plastics and pharmaceuticals.

To prevent the diversion of such chemicals from licit channels to illicit drug manufacture and trafficking, more and more countries are now monitoring domestic and international movements, as called for by the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Many countries are sharing information to check the legitimacy of chemical shipments, and are seizing those that are identified as suspicious. Countries are alerting each other and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to diversions and attempted diversions of precursor chemicals, to prevent traffickers turning to other countries as points of diversion.

Those actions have led to major successes. The introduction of stricter controls is credited with preventing the diversion from licit channels of up to 250 tons per year of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in North America alone. That quantity would have allowed traffickers to manufacture more than 160 tons of methamphetamine illicitly, representing some 15 billion doses. Similarly, in 1996, government action led to the seizure and prevention of diversion of some 360 tons of acetic anhydride destined for use in illicit heroin manufacture. That quantity, which would have been sufficient to make almost 150 tons of heroin, represents a significant proportion of the chemicals required by traffickers for manufacturing the heroin available on the illicit market, estimated variously at between 430 and 530 tons.

Many Governments still lack the resources or capacity to determine whether the import or export of precursor chemicals is related to legitimate need, or to illicit drug manufacture. Consequently, large quantities of the key chemicals required for illicit drug manufacture are still being diverted for use in clandestine laboratories. The problem is made more difficult because many chemical shipments are directed through third countries in an attempt to disguise their real purpose and final destination, or to deliberately exploit weaknesses in controls. In addition, as some of the chemicals covered by the 1988 Convention have become more difficult to obtain as a result of the introduction of controls, traffickers have sought to obtain new chemicals that may be used as substitutes for those that are closely monitored, or have used new methods for illicit manufacture requiring chemicals that are not controlled.

More can be done to prevent diversions, and the international community, through the United Nations and INCB, has become increasingly involved in concerted global action to limit the availability to traffickers of the precursors used in illicit drug manufacture.

At its Special Session, the General Asembly will consider a draft Resolution to further strengthen the control of precursor chemicals. Under the draft Resolution on Control of Precursors, to be adopted by the General Assembly, States will be requested to:

For more information, please contact:

Sandro Tucci
United Nations International Drug Control Programme
Vienna International Centre, Room E 1448
P.O Box 500
A-1400 Vienna, Austria

Tel: (431) 21345-5629;
Fax: (431) 21345-5931

Bill Hass
Development and Human Rights Section
United Nations Department of Public Information
Room S-1040
United Nations Headquarters
1, United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017

Tel: (212) 963 0353/3771;
Fax:(212) 963 1186