On the synthetic drugs trail

6 March 2009 - UNODC has just launched an innovative online report highlighting developments on the global synthetic drugs scene. The first Global SMART Update compiles snapshots of drug seizures, laboratories uncovered, usage and new trafficking trends. "This is a quick and easy tool for Governments and law enforcement agencies to follow emerging challenges related to synthetic drugs" said UNODC manager Jeremy Douglas. The report will be further developed as an interactive product.

It reveals, for example, that police in Melbourne, Australia, seized 15 million ecstasy tablets weighing 4.4 tons in August 2008 - the largest recorded seizure of the drug anywhere. The same month in Guangzhou, China, investigation teams busted an "industrial-scale" methamphetamine laboratory fronting as a chemical factory, seizing 1700 litres of liquid methamphetamine.

"What is unfolding is disturbing, with the problem expanding and spreading. It is cropping up in some unexpected locations," Douglas says. Although many reports come from Asia, in Reykjavik, Iceland, for example, police and Europol dismantled an illicit amphetamine laboratory sophisticated enough to manufacture its own precursor chemicals.

Amphetamines are a group of man-made stimulants mostly comprising amphetamine, methamphetamine and ecstasy. Street names include ice, yaba, shabu, meth, p and tik. While the emergence of synthetic drugs has gone somewhat unnoticed in many parts of the world, the 2008 UNODC Global Assessment revealed that the use of these drugs is spreading and exceeds that of cocaine and heroin combined. Manufacture is confirmed in about 60 countries.

A UNODC-commissioned study in 2008 found that the annual prevalence of meth use was over 5 per cent among students in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, noticeably higher than noted in a similar study conducted in 2002. Meanwhile, Ukraine is witnessing a rise in the injection of home-made synthetic stimulants with names like Vint, Jeff and Boltushka, leading to more HIV and severe brain damage caused by the crude concoctions. The US National Drug Threat Assessment warned in December 2008 of increasing methamphetamine availability due to trafficking from Mexico. "These reports cover a fairly short period and reinforce our concerns", said Douglas.

It is clear that use of synthetic drugs is growing both in developing countries and in parts of the west, Douglas says. To throw more light on the issue, UNODC launched the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analysis, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme in September 2008. SMART teams will work with governments to develop, assess and report data and information on synthetic drugs, enabling countries to plan prevention and law enforcement responses.


Global SMART Update Volume 1 (pdf)

Global SMART Programme brochure (pdf)