Challenges in reducing the supply and demand for synthetic drugs

Methamphetamine continues to dominate the synthetic drugs market in East and South-East Asia and is mainly available in two forms: methamphetamine tablets and crystalline methamphetamine. Increasing methamphetamine seizures and expert perception of high levels of methamphetamine tablet and crystalline methamphetamine use indicate the presence of a large and possibly expanding market in East and South-East Asia. For some years, the “ecstasy”4 market has been concentrated in parts of Oceania. Recently, according to expert perception, there is an emerging “ecstasy” market in parts of East and South-East Asia with use reported in Indonesia and countries in the Mekong sub-region.

Addressing the trafficking of synthetic drugs in East and South-East Asia involves a number of difficulties. Over the last several years, countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania have experienced rapid economic expansion. For instance, the share of the regions’ global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP), is estimated to have increased from about 10 per cent in 2000 to over 30 per cent in 2014 at a value of more than US$ 28 trillion. Except for a sharp drop in 2009, exports and imports to and from countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania have also significantly increased over the years. Between 2002 and 2013, imports and exports more than tripled to more than US$ 6.5 trillion and 6.9 US$ trillion respectively. Under these conditions of rapid expansion of licit trade flows, it is not unlikely that opportunities for misusing the licit trade for illicit purposes have also increased and are being exploited. While in this context many positive economic opportunities opened up, challenges for governments in their efforts to tackle the problem of synthetic drugs evolved as well.

A large and expanding market for synthetic drugs

East and South-East Asia and Oceania is estimated to have the largest market for ATS users in the world. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates for 2012, East and South-East Asia and Oceania together have the largest number of ATS (excluding “ecstasy”) users worldwide at almost 9.5 million users, as well as the largest number of “ecstasy” users at 3.9 million. In Oceania, the estimated annual prevalence rates for both ATS (excluding “ecstasy”) use and “ecstasy” use for 2012 were the highest in the world at 2.1 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively.

Moreover, ATS seizures reported in the region have accounted for an increasing share of global seizures and since 2010 have reported the second largest amount relative to other regions of the world. In East and South-East Asia and Oceania, ATS seizures have increased from almost 12 tons in 2008 to about 48 tons in 2013. This significant increase of seizures in the region might partly be the result of effective law enforcement measures, but also points to expanding manufacture and an increase of trafficking to and through the region. Since 2011, seizures in the region have annually exceeded those reported in Africa and Europe as well as those reported in other parts of Asia although the largest amount of ATS seizures worldwide has been reported in the Americas (primarily North America) since 2009. However, seizures in the Americas have decreased in recent years, dropping from up to 81 tons in 2011 to 49 tons in 2013, only somewhat higher than the amount reported in East and South-East Asia and Oceania that year.

Between 2009 and 2013, a growing number of countries worldwide have identified countries in East and South-East Asia and Oceania as destinations for seized ATS. Given that the exact annual amount of seized ATS destined for countries in this region is unknown, the trend does not necessarily imply that increasing amounts of seized ATS are destined for countries in the region, but that the interception of trafficking attempts to East and South-East Asian countries has increased. Among the 95 countries and territories worldwide identified as destination for ATS seized between 2009 and 2013, three out of the five most frequently mentioned ones were located in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, specifically Australia, Japan and Malaysia, the other two countries being the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom.10 Moreover, Malaysia was the most frequently reported destination for intercepted ATS trafficking attempts in the world in 2012.11

The rapid rise of ATS seizures reported in East and South-East Asia and Oceania is primarily attributable to the increase of methamphetamine seizures which almost quadrupled from about 11 tons in 2008 to almost 42 tons in 2013. Over the same period, “ecstasy” seizures reported in the region have annually remained below 1 ton, with the exception of 2012, when “ecstasy” seizures increased to about 2 tons. Amphetamine seizures reported in the region have also remained below 1 ton for some years, but have risen to more than 2 tons in 2011 and 2013. On the whole, amphetamine and “ecstasy” together, have annually accounted for a small share of ATS seizures reported in East and South-East Asia, whereas methamphetamine has annually accounted for more than 85 per cent of ATS seizures reported in the region since 2008.

Diversification of the synthetic drugs market

There is a large and growing market for methamphetamine in East and South-East Asia. In the region, methamphetamine is predominantly available in two forms: methamphetamine tablets and crystalline methamphetamine. Methamphetamine tablets, commonly known as ‘yaba’ in the region, are small pills typically of low purity which are available in many different shapes and colours. Crystalline methamphetamine, also called ‘crystal meth’, ‘ice’ or ‘shabu’, is usually of much higher purity than the tablet form. These two forms of methamphetamine portray different trends in their geographic spread and trafficking routes. Methamphetamine tablets are mainly manufactured in the Mekong sub-region of East and South-East Asia and seizure reports indicate that such tablets are mostly intended for markets within this sub-region. However, there have recently also been some indications of an emerging market for methamphetamine tablets in the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. Unlike with methamphetamine tablets, crystalline methamphetamine has become a geographically wide-spread drug trafficked across East and South-East Asia. Although crystalline methamphetamine continues to be manufactured within the region on a large scale, a complex international trafficking pattern of crystalline methamphetamine has evolved in recent years, originating from Western Africa, Western Asia, North America, and, more recently, South Asia.

As in many other parts of the world, the synthetic drugs market in East and South-East Asia and Oceania has become increasingly diversified with the rapid emergence of a growing number of NPS that are designed to mimic the effects of substances under international control. Although the total number of NPS in the region has fluctuated over the years, reports on the emergence of NPS in the region have increased from 34 substances in 2009 to a total of 137 substances by November 2014. Certain NPS, such as ketamine and kratom, have had a long established market in several countries of the region while others seem to be transient. Of the 137 NPS that have been reported to have emerged, 36 NPS (mostly synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones) have disappeared from the market since 2008. Moreover, data on NPS emergence suggests that some countries, such as Australia, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore, have a more diversified NPS market than other countries in the region. However, the capacity of forensic laboratories to identify NPS differs between countries in the region and it is likely that this has an influence on how many NPS have been reported.21

So far, it remains unclear whether there is a link between the growing availability of NPS and the “ecstasy” market. However, evidence from New Zealand points to the existence of a two-pronged market in which “ecstasy” high in MDMA is being supplied from countries outside the region, predominantly Western Europe, and “ecstasy” containing various controlled and non-controlled substances is being manufactured within the region. In East and South-East Asia and Oceania, there are reports of seized “ecstasy” tablets that have been found to contain little or no MDMA and consist mainly of a blend of non-controlled substances including NPS. Overall, it remains unclear whether certain NPS are replacing MDMA, in either the short or long term, or whether they are simply being used to supplement the “ecstasy” market. The large amount of ecstasy chemical precursors seized in recent years in East and South-East Asia and Oceania indicates the potential for significant ecstasy manufacture. Moreover, “ecstasy” seizure data suggests that the region accounts for an increasing share of the global “ecstasy” market.

International efforts for an integrated response

The synthetic drugs market in East and South-East Asia and Oceania is not a separate and self-contained entity, but part of a larger complex global network with interconnected channels for the supply and demand of synthetic drugs. Therefore, information exchange and cooperation on national, regional and international levels is crucial to establish an effective response to the growing problem in East and South-East Asia and Oceania. Given the dynamic nature of the NPS market in the region, as well as most other regions of the world, it remains important to share information on the emergence of and national responses to NPS. This assists Member States to better understand the threat of NPS and emerging challenges in the wider synthetic drugs market.