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Highlighting UNODC's response to the challenges posed by synthetic drugs

Bangkok (Thailand), 25 March 2010 - Synthetic drugs have become a growing problem globally, with a market estimation as high as $65 billion. Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) pose new challenges due to their availability, affordability and adaptability to shifts in consumer trends. In East and Southeast Asia the successful reduction in opium cultivation and production over the past decade and a half, has unfortunately been mirrored by a simultaneous increase in the use and trafficking of ATS. It is estimated that about half of all ATS users worldwide live in East and Southeast Asia.

The response to the growing ATS threat in East and Southeast Asia is taking many forms. One of these is to improve our knowledge of the extend and nature of the threat these drugs pose. As part of this response, UNODC launched its SMART programme towards the end of 2008. Under this programme, work focuses on 11 countries - Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam - in the region to improve the quality of the knowledge base on ATS production, trafficking and use.


Within a short space of time the Programme has already started to yield quality information on ATS trends. In November 2009, the Global SMART Programme published the 2009 Patterns and Trends of ATS and other Drugs in East and South-East Asia report. This report picked up the following emerging trends:

  • There is an increasing demand for methamphetamine in Thailand. This will likely have wide implications for neighbouring countries, such as increased trafficking and the risk of clandestine laboratory operations being established (or increasing) in border areas of Lao PDR and Cambodia.
  • Viet Nam may emerge as a vulnerable market as methamphetamine manufacturers seek to diversify away from their reliance on the Thai market.
  • The changing security situation in Myanmar is serving as a push factor for illicit drugs and relocation of clandestine manufacturing sites across its borders.
  • Although methamphetamine in pill form remains the dominant form of methamphetamine in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), the availability of crystalline methamphetamine with considerably higher purity is likely to expand with a subsequent increase in use, particularly that of injecting drug use.
  • The scale of ATS manufacturing in Indonesia is already large and the country could, in theory, displace Europe as a significant supply source for ecstasy in the region.
  • Malaysia is at a high risk of becoming a major consumer market for ATS because large amounts are trafficked into the country in addition to large-scale domestic manufacturing.
  • Development is accelerating in the region leading to new infrastructure and trade initiatives. The resulting increased movement of persons, traffic and cargo, provide opportunities that can be exploited by traffickers unless adequate mechanisms and capacities are in place in terms of law enforcement and customs.

Much of the painstaking work required to access the raw data and convert it into useful information and analysis involves very close collaboration between UNODC and the partner countries.

In order to build and strengthen the networks on which this cooperation can be built, UNODC conducts workshops and discussion forums with the national competent authorities. Three such workshops were held in Cambodia, Myanmar and Philippines, in December 2009. The workshops highlighted the specific areas of focus for capacity building within the three countries. The following broad areas were highlighted as requiring immediate focus:

  • Strengthening of information sharing
  • Providing continued situational analysis on ATS trends and patterns
  • Facilitating online information availability
  • Reinvigorating inter-sectoral cooperation and information sharing at the national level
  • Providing training and capacity-building adapted to the individual country needs, and
  • Supporting information generation through assistance to design/formulate/conduct studies and surveys.

The UNODC Global SMART Programme is being implemented in a gradual and phased manner. Building on the initial successes of SMART in East and Southeast Asia, the programme will soon be expanded into operation in other regions of the world. The next operational area for programme expansion will be the Americas, where the programme will be implemented in partnership with the Organisation of American States (OAS).

The SMART Programme was profiled in the recently-concluded 53rd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, where SMART organised a side-event for appraising the participants of the global ATS situation, and highlighting key achievements to date . The event on 10 March included presentations and briefing sessions by the Global SMART team, followed by a detailed question and answer session.