Synthetic Drugs: The Agony and the Ecstasy PDF Print E-mail
The shaping of policy at UNODC (2002-2010)

Posted 17 September 2008 

Last week in Bangkok I launched the latest report from UNODC called Amphetamines and Ecstasy: 2008 Global ATS Assessment . It provides a sharp picture of the situation of synthetic drugs around the world.

It shows that for many people, synthetic drugs have become the tonic for fast and competitive times. Around the world, people are popping pills and powder known as amphetamine-type stimulants (or ATS). In the West, it is usually used as a "party drug" or to enhance performance (also known as cheating), among professional athletes. In the East, it is being taken to stay alert in manual jobs, like on assembly lines or long-haul trucking.

By our estimates, more than 30 million people use amphetamine, methamphetamine (meth) or ecstasy at least once a year. The global market for these stimulants is estimated at $65 billion.

Part of the attraction for users is that synthetic drugs are readily available, affordable, and convenient to use (no need to shoot up, snort or smoke). Amphetamines speed up the way the body works: users experience increased confidence, sociability and energy. This buzz is considered harmless: 'pills do not kill or spread HIV/AIDS', it is said.

But people who become dependent on "uppers" may suffer paranoia, kidney failure, and internal bleeding, even serious mental health problems, brain damage or heart attack.

World-wide, the problem seems to be stabilizing. After substantial increases in the 1990s - when meth was considered public enemy number one in the United States and Japan - the use of synthetic drugs has stabilized in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, albeit at high levels.

But the main conclusion of the report is that the problem is shifting to new markets, for example in East and South-East Asia and the Near and Middle East. Asia, with its huge population and increasing affluence, is driving demand.

The upsurge is not limited to Asia. Last year in Saudi Arabia 14 tonnes of amphetamine were seized, mostly in the form known as Captagon. That's one quarter of all amphetamines seized in the world. Seven years ago, Saudi Arabia accounted for only 1% of all such seizures.

Why the shift in markets? For societies in transition or going through rapid modernization, synthetic drugs seem to be a by-product of hyper-active growth. The shift is also due to a strong supply push from increasingly aggressive criminal groups with tentacles around the world.

A decade ago, synthetic drugs were a do-it-yourself cottage industry. The ingredients for meth, for example, are readily available, recipes are easy to obtain (for example on  the Internet), and batches of the drug can be cooked up in the kitchen.

However, in the past few years, the production of amphetamine-type stimulants has gone global, and has become a big business. Organized crime is taking over all aspects of this illicit trade, from smuggling precursor chemicals, to manufacturing the drugs, and trafficking.

Producers and suppliers adapt quickly to the latest trends, and cater to local markets. When one lab is shut, another opens. When one type of precursor chemical is unavailable, producers switch to an alternative.

Before it is too late, countries in the developing world need to get their heads out of the sand. Many are in denial about the problem, and do not even report their situation to the United Nations. Others, who are the most vulnerable, are ill-equipped to fight the pandemic, in terms of information gathering, regulatory frameworks, law enforcement, forensics, or health care.

In general, more information is needed on new types of synthetic drugs (like the hallucinogen ketamine), developments in production techniques, emerging trafficking routes and new  markets.  

Stabilization of the problem in developed world shows that containment is possible. But unless more attention and resources are paid to prevention, treatment, and law enforcement in youthful and increasingly affluent societies in the developing world, these countries may soon be facing an epidemic of drug abuse.



Last Updated on Thursday, 20 January 2011 11:11