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UN: Record Seizures of Pills, Crystal Meth in Asia in 2012

  • Steve Herman
  • VOA News

FILE - A U.S. Customs handout photo of the drug ya ba, which was discovered in a shipment of chopsticks.

FILE - A U.S. Customs handout photo of the drug ya ba, which was discovered in a shipment of chopsticks.

Law enforcement seizures of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) in the Asia-Pacific region hit a record high in 2012, according to a United Nations organization.

In a report released Friday, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) expresses concern that trans-national organized crime groups, including those from Iran, are expanding drug trafficking by exploiting Asia's increased regional integration that allows for the freer flow of products and people.

Based on information from drug control agencies and other institutions in 11 countries, UNODC representative Jeremy Douglas said seizures for two types of methamphetamines “have literally gone through the roof.” He cites one pill in particular, known as “yaba” (“madness drug”) in Thailand and “shabu” in other countries, as a particular problem; 227 million of the caffeine-spiked tablets were seized in the Asia-Pacific region last year.

Of that total, more than 100 million of the pills were seized in China alone. Nearly that many were seized in Thailand as well.

Besides Thailand, seizures “increased significantly” in Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Japan, according to the UNODC report.

“Demand for [methamphetamine pills] is incredibly high in the [East and Southeast Asia] sub region,” said Douglas, UNODC's Southeast Asia and the Pacific regional representative. “We’re estimating a minimum of 1.5 billion pills are needed within the sub region. And seizing over 200 million would indicate they have a very high percentage being seized, which would indicate success. So, in other words, law enforcement are giving priority to this and they’re seizing a lot.”

Meth Users Ignorant of Additional Risks

Those concerned with the problem in the region note the ease with which one can get addicted to yaba, which is especially popular among young working males.

“They’ve been unaware of what they’re taking. They think it’s a nice little pretty pink pill and it’s harmless because it’s a pill and pills are good. So they get into it,” Douglas told VOA. “The same thing could be happening in some markets where you have lower education levels in relation to crystal meth, as well.”

The UNODC data reveals crystal meth is also being consumed in record levels in the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s indicating a diversity in the market, the drug market. And it’s also indicating huge demand as well as very large supply, both production within the region and we’re seeing production from outside the region coming in now,” explained Douglas.

There was only a trace of crystal meth in the region just five years ago, but since then an illicit drug network has created a booming multi-national market for the highly-addictive stimulant, which has received greater global awareness following its central role in the U.S. television series, “Breaking Bad.”

“In some cases, they gave it away as a test for people to see if they’d take it, see if they’d like it,” according to Douglas. “They built the taste for it, they built the demand for it. Now they ship it into the region.”

Iranian Links to Asian Meth

Iran-based trans-national crime groups are involved, according to U.N. officials. The “very sophisticated” operations have established drug labs in India and Pakistan to supply dealers, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards are “significantly involved in the international drug trade, both directly and through proxies,” alleges the conservative think tank The American Center for Democracy.

“This involvement provides the organization with access to sources of financing that bypass international sanctions, as well as to sophisticated operational platforms that support its subversive efforts aimed at the West.”

An opposition group with sources in the country, Green Experts of Iran, has made similar accusations.

The UNODC report contains no information about North Korea's manufacture or consumption of drugs because U.N. officials primarily rely on information provided by local drug enforcement agencies.

For decades, state-run drug factories in North Korea reputedly produced high-grade meth and other drugs for export to China as part of Pyongyang's pursuit of illicit hard currency. However, there is scant evidence in recent years of government-organized trafficking. Some of the border drug trade has blown back into the impoverished and reclusive country, resulting in use at “epidemic levels in North Hamgyung and other provinces,” according to the journal North Korea Review.

Pharmaceutical Industry Tied to Meth Spread

Authorities across the region also face regulatory challenges in combating the trade. In particular, authorities struggle to oversee the chemical and pharmaceutical industries which make or acquire the ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamines.

“We’re seeing diversion of precursor chemicals from the pharmaceutical industry,” explained Douglas. “We’re also seeing diversion of pharmaceutical products, particularly out of South Asia - India and to some extent, Bangladesh - into the drug production cycle.”

The illicit drugs are generating billions of dollars in the region. The money is then laundered through banks and property markets in Asia, according to specialists in the region.

Corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary is also speeding the spread of meth across Asia. The graft is permeating through professions not normally associated with trans-national organized crime.

“There are many cases within this region of medical supply companies diverting pharmaceuticals knowingly into this meth production, from hospitals or from doctors’ medical supplies. So there’s obviously corruption there, as well,” said Douglas.

Officials predict the problem will get worse from 2015 on, when ASEAN's economic community, composed of 600 million people, is set for integration.

“A lot of people really haven’t thought that through,” said Douglas. “When you start opening the borders, which are already fairly open, but you open them even further, and you start pumping goods and people through the region much more quickly, there is a high probability that you’re going to end up with an increase in trafficking,” predicted Douglas.

However, the full scope of the problem is not yet clear. The UNODC report concedes that “numerous challenges remain in assessing the full extent of the security and health implications of the illicit manufacture, trafficking and use of ATS and other synthetic drugs in the region.”