South Asia: The emerging threat of synthetic drugs

Highlights from the UNODC Global SMART Programme report

The global emergence of synthetic drugs such as amphetamine, methamphetamine and ecstasy pills is a growing public health concern. In many countries across the world, ATS (Amphetamine-Type Stimulants) have become the primary drug threat, displacing hitherto used drugs such as heroin, opium or cannabis, with a growing number of ATS users requiring treatment services. ATS also pose a serious challenge to law enforcement authorities trying to curb the manufacture and trafficking of these synthetic drugs. The recently published report titled 'Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs: Asia and the Pacific' by the UNODC Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme highlights that countries in South Asia are vulnerable targets for illicit ATS manufacture.

Amphetamine-type stimulants belong to the stimulant class of drugs, similar to cocaine and they act by exciting the central nervous system. These are chemically produced and are commonly known by their street names such as speed, meth, yaba and ice. They are especially popular amongst the youth, including adolescents and are commonly used in parties. They cause mental health conditions such as paranoia (psychosis) and anxiety related conditions and also lead to permanent health damage amongst the users. Often these drugs are mixed with other types of drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines and hallucinogens, resulting in poly drug use, which add further complications to the user's health and treatment. ATS use by injection also increases the risk of contracting blood-borne viruses, particularly HIV.

Curtailing the manufacture and trafficking of these synthetic drugs is a challenge for law enforcement authorities, as an increasing number of countries report the illicit manufacture of ATS. Unlike plant-based crops that are dependent on climate and geography and can be detected and measured using aerial or ground surveys, ATS manufacturing facilities can be established anywhere and are thus difficult to detect. The starting materials or precursor chemicals required for the illicit manufacture of ATS are often easily accessible. ATS drugs can be manufactured in clandestine laboratories using easily obtainable ingredients and formulas.

On the illicit drug market, these drugs are sold in form of powders, liquids, crystals, tablets and capsules. Usually, tablets are the most common form available for use. Amphetamine-type stimulants are cheap and easy to use where available, thereby posing a potential risk for increased use.

According to the UNODC Global SMART Programme report, countries in South Asia are vulnerable to illicit ATS manufacture due to several reasons such as geographical proximity to East and Southeast Asian source countries of illicit methamphetamine, wide availability of precursor chemicals (particularly ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, often in the form of pharmaceutical preparations), and technical know-how available in the region. The large numbers of licit chemical and pharmaceutical industries in the region are often targeted by organized criminal groups that manufacture and traffic ATS.

The growing number of discoveries of several clandestine methamphetamine-related laboratories in South Asia over the past two years shows that countries in the region are increasingly being used as locations of illicit ATS manufacture. The region has witnessed all types of ATS manufacture, ranging from small-scale kitchen laboratories to large-scale manufacturing facilities. Illicit laboratories have also engaged in extracting precursors for ATS from pharmaceutical preparations containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. New techniques for the illicit chemical syntheses of ephedrine are being used to evade regulatory and law enforcement efforts.

The UNODC Global SMART Programme report highlights that the risk of increasing use of ATS is the greatest in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka appear to be targeted by transnational organized criminal groups involved in the illicit manufacture of ATS activities. Little information is available from Bhutan and the Maldives, although the risk of ATS use exists in these countries also. The following are the country wise highlights from the report:

Bangladesh: While no representative household surveys of drug use in Bangladesh have been undertaken, it is estimated that the most common ATS used in Bangladesh are methamphetamine pills, locally known as 'yaba'. While it has been suggested that these are primarily smuggled into the country from neighbouring Myanmar, domestic manufacture cannot be ruled out. Over the past few years, the country has also emerged as a source for precursors in the form of pharmaceutical preparations for destinations in Central America and the Caribbean.

India: In South Asia, India is the main source of manufacture and trafficking of ATS. Several facilities or attempts to establish facilities for the illicit manufacture of ATS, predominantly methamphetamine, were uncovered by law enforcement agencies in India between 2004 and 2010. India has also become a trafficking route with Cambodia, Canada, Spain, Taiwan Province of China, Philippines and the United Kingdom as final destinations of ATS.

India and China are the two countries most often reported as sources of seized illicit shipments of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine - precursors for making methamphetamines. From India, these chemicals have been trafficked from/via various regions including the Balkans, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Philippines, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates and Africa countries in both Africa and Central America. Law enforcement agencies in India have also made significant seizures of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine over the last few years which confirm that there is illicit production or diversion of these substances from legitimate trade in spite of the strict controls imposed by the Government of India.

India has become a source for pharmaceutical preparations containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, as these are used for extraction of ATS precursors. It is also a source of ketamine, an anesthetic often used for veterinary purposes. Ketamine, which is manufactured legally in India, is trafficked from India to countries in East Asia where its abuse is reportedly widespread.

Nepal: So far, no illicit manufacture or use of ATS has been reported from Nepal. However, the pharmaceutical industry in Nepal is developing fast and the absence of legislative controls on precursor chemicals is likely to be exploited by traffickers. Legitimate imports of pseudoephedrine into Nepal have also increased significantly over the years, although specific data is not available.

Unconfirmed reports from law enforcement officials also suggest that ATS precursors are trafficked through the land border from China into Nepal. This is a serious development that is largely going unnoticed as resources to address all aspects of drug use and trafficking in the country are very limited.

Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka's recent history of drug use has consisted primarily of cannabis and opiates, with infrequent reports of the use of cocaine and ecstasy by a few non-nationals and affluent locals. However, recent events related to the manufacture and trafficking of methamphetamine suggest the possibility that ATS supply and demand could emerge in the country. Isolated instances of illicit methamphetamine manufacture and trafficking underscore the need for increasing the awareness of law enforcement agencies about this important issue. Sri Lanka is also a transit point for drug trafficking as traffickers act as couriers of drugs from Pakistan and India to Europe and the West through Colombo and Male.

Official statistics however represent only the tip of the iceberg as comprehensive assessments to determine the nature and extent of the ATS situation have not been made. Dedicated data collection mechanisms on this important issue are still absent in most countries in the region and even where such mechanisms exist, they may not have the capacity to differentiate between various synthetic drugs. There is also a need to further improve forensic information which can provide important insights into the origin of synthetic drugs. These are areas that deserve further action by the governments concerned, with possible support from the international community.

The Global SMART Programme

UNODC launched the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme in September 2008. The Programme seeks to enhance the capacity of Member States and authorities in priority regions, to generate, manage, analyse and report synthetic drug information, and to apply this scientific evidence-based knowledge to the design of policies and programmes.

Know more about the UNODC Global SMART Programme

Read the report 'Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs: Asia and the Pacific'