Methamphetamine sold in East and South-East Asia is available in two main forms: methamphetamine tablets and crystalline methamphetamine. In both presentations, methamphetamine is available in salt form, most frequently as methamphetamine hydrochloride which, in principle, can be smoked, nasally insufflated, orally ingested and injected. Methamphetamine tablets, commonly known as ‘yaba’ in the region, are small pills typically of low purity weighing about 90 mg which are available in many different shapes and colours. In addition to methamphetamine, such tablets often contain a large portion of caffeine and a range of adulterants. For methamphetamine tablets, ingestion but also smoking of crushed tablets is common. Crystalline methamphetamine, also called ‘crystal meth’, ‘ice’ or ‘shabu’, is usually of much higher purity than the tablet form. On the illicit drug market, it is encountered as (crushed) colourless crystals of various sizes. Information on seizures and use indicate that the market for both forms of methamphetamine is expanding. Both, methamphetamine tablet and crystalline methamphetamine seizures increased in East and South-East Asia between 2008 and 2013. Over this period crystalline methamphetamine seizures in the region almost doubled, while methamphetamine tablet seizures have risen at a more rapid rate resulting in an eight-fold increase.
Expert perception indicates high levels of methamphetamine tablet and crystalline methamphetamine use in East and South-East Asia. In 2013, crystalline methamphetamine was the primary drug of concern in Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea and the second drug of concern in China, Singapore and Viet Nam according to expert perception. Methamphetamine in tablet from was also the primary drug of concern in Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) and Thailand and the second drug of concern in China and Viet Nam.
Moreover, in 2013, there was an increase in the use of crystalline methamphetamine according to expert perception in 7 countries of the region, namely Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Viet Nam. In the same year, experts perceived an increased use of methamphetamine tablets in countries of the Greater Mekong sub-region, namely Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam. In Myanmar, for example, the past-month prevalence of amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) use, as reported by survey respondents in poppy-growing regions, tripled between 2012 and 2014. While this survey is not representative for the general population, it might indicate an increase in the use of methamphetamine tablets.
Differences between methamphetamine tablet and crystalline methamphetamine market segments
The existence of two forms of presentation of methamphetamine in the region, both showing recent increases in terms of seizures and use, leads to the question of whether they are serving the same or different market segments. This chapter discusses differences between tablet and crystalline methamphetamine as reflected in information on their prices, purity, perceived origin, trafficking flows and geographic spread.
The price and purity of crystalline methamphetamine and methamphetamine tablets vary considerably between countries in the region. A caveat regarding the analysis of tablet purity data needs to be made. The actual weight may vary from tablet to tablet and batch to batch as they are produced under clandestine conditions. Considering tablet purity alone can be misleading as tablets of different weights contain different amounts of methamphetamine even if the purity is the same. However, data on tablet purity is available for many countries in the region while the methamphetamine amount per tablet is not regularly reported. As available information does not indicate large variations in tablet weight, tablet purity is used as a proxy indicator for methamphetamine content per tablet. On the whole, in 2013, similar to previous years, methamphetamine tablets were reported to have a purity of 5-20 per cent, with the remainder often consisting largely of caffeine. These tablets are available among the low-priced segment of drug markets in East and South-East Asia. Nevertheless, prices of methamphetamine tablets varied considerably, wherein different levels of purity are one example among several contributing factors. For instance, in the Mekong sub-region, Viet Nam was among the countries to have reported one of the lowest retail prices for methamphetamine tablets, ranging between US$ 1.5 and US$ 3.5 per tablet with an average purity of 8-10 per cent. Low retail prices for methamphetamine tablets were also reported in the northern parts of Thailand, close to the border with Myanmar. In 2013, methamphetamine tablet samples analyzed by forensic laboratories in Thailand had a purity of 10-20 per cent. According to expert perception, methamphetamine tablets continued to be the cheapest and most widely available illicit drug available in Lao PDR and there were indications that prices were decreasing, reaching around US$ 2 per tablet in 2013. According to expert perception, the decline in methamphetamine tablet prices in Lao PDR might be due to an increasing availability of the drug resulting from large volumes of methamphetamine tablets transiting the country from Myanmar to other markets.
Some of the highest prices for methamphetamine tablets have been reported by countries outside the Mekong sub-region, by countries such as China and Singapore, both of which had reported of an average retail price above US$ 20 per tablet. However, these comparatively high prices might not necessarily be due to a higher purity. For instance, methamphetamine tablets analyzed in Singapore in 2013 had a purity of only 2.4 per cent.
In contrast to methamphetamine tablets, which require additional components in the tableting process such as binding agents, crystalline methamphetamine can be of comparatively high purity. For instance, in 2013, crystalline methamphetamine in Thailand reportedly had a purity of 40-90 per cent and an average retail price of US$ 35-100 per gram. In Indonesia, crystalline methamphetamine samples tested by forensic laboratories had a purity of 40-53 per cent in 2012.37 In 2013, the retail price for one gram of crystalline methamphetamine in Indonesia ranged between US$ 200-285.38 The highest average retail prices per gram of crystalline methamphetamine were found in countries outside the Mekong sub-region such as in Brunei Darussalam, Japan and the Republic of Korea while the average retail price in most other South-East Asian countries was lower. In Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, crystalline methamphetamine prices have fluctuated in recent years. The data available on methamphetamine prices and purity has improved in recent years but does not yet allow for an in-depth analysis e.g. calculating purity-adjusted prices.
Tablet and crystalline methamphetamine prices are not easily comparable. As with other drugs, users may attribute properties to one or the other form or have usage preferences which are not measurable in quantitative terms with one-dimensional indicators such as prices. Individual consumption patterns, e.g. dosage and frequency of use, can also vary considerably. Still, taking these caveats into account and assuming that users may take one or a small number of methamphetamine tablets per consumption event, and that a gram of street quality crystalline methamphetamine could represent about a dozen doses, crystalline methamphetamine in Japan, the Republic of Korea and Brunei Darussalam seem to be well above tablet prices. However, methamphetamine tablets are not typically encountered in these countries. In other countries of the region, particularly where both forms of methamphetamine are commonly available, such as Thailand and Viet Nam, the price ranges seem to be much closer.
Clearly, more investigation is needed to understand if and how tablet and crystalline methamphetamine use is linked and whether they serve distinct segments of the drug market.
Methamphetamine tablet trafficking – a sub-regional problem?
Differences between the tablet and crystalline forms of methamphetamine also exist in terms of geographical area of manufacture and main destination countries for trafficking. 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. Myanmar is perceived to be the main country of origin for methamphetamine tablets seized throughout the Mekong sub-region and to some other parts of East and South-East Asia. Reports of methamphetamine tablets originating in Myanmar and seized in China and Thailand indicate that increasing quantities are being trafficked from Myanmar across their joint borders. By 2013, almost 85 per cent of methamphetamine tablets seized in China were reported in Yunnan province in China, which signifies an 8 per cent increase of seizures reported in this province from the previous year. Moreover, analysis of seized methamphetamine tablets at the National Narcotics Laboratory in China in 2013 showed that more than 90 per cent of these tablets had originated in Myanmar. According to government and media reports, consignments of methamphetamine tablets are frequently discovered inside compartments of motor vehicles as well as boats travelling along the Mekong River. As a response, China, Myanmar, Lao PDR and Thailand formed a joint anti-trafficking task force to patrol the river in 2011, which has been conducting close to 30 joint patrols since then.
Given that interdiction efforts have been strengthened along the joint border between Myanmar to China and Thailand, there are indications that drug traffickers have shifted routes to avoid detection. For instance, methamphetamine tablets are increasingly being trafficked from Myanmar via Lao PDR to China and Thailand, and to a lesser extent to Cambodia and Viet Nam. In 2014, up to 10 shipments totalling around 19 million methamphetamine tablets were reported to have been seized in Loei Province in Thailand, bordering Lao PDR. Over the years, Lao PDR has become a major transit point for drug trafficking and the mountainous parts of the country and riverine terrain account for large parts of the country which are particularly hard to patrol. In 2013, methamphetamine tablet seizures in Lao PDR increased by more than a third to over 15 million tablets from about 10 million tablets in 2012 and 4.6 million tablets in 2011.
In Myanmar, methamphetamine tablets are reported to be mostly manufactured in the north-eastern Shan state, bordering China, Lao PDR and Thailand. Between 2004 and 2013, law enforcement authorities in Myanmar have discovered 31 methamphetamine tablet pressing machines, nearly all of which were located in the Shan State. In a recent case reported in August 2014, a tableting machine was discovered in the Mine Twin village tract of the East Shan State together with around 1.6 million methamphetamine tablets, 84 kg of methamphetamine powder, and large quantities of precursor chemicals and other illicit drugs. Over the years, most dismantled methamphetamine laboratories in Myanmar consisted of small-scale mobile facilities in areas controlled by active or former ethnic insurgent groups. Although, annual methamphetamine tablet seizures have fluctuated in terms of quantity, the number of methamphetamine tablet seizure cases have increased between 2007 and 2013, from over 400 cases in 2007 to over 1,700 cases in 2013.49 Moreover, a recent decline was observed in the retail price for methamphetamine tablets in Myanmar. In 2013, the average retail price of a methamphetamine tablet was about US$ 2, signifying a decline from US$ 5 in 2011.
Although most methamphetamine seized in Thailand is perceived to have originated from Myanmar, methamphetamine manufacture has recently also re-emerged in Thailand. Between 2012 and 2013,11 methamphetamine laboratories were dismantled, most of which were found in locations close to Bangkok, including 5 home-based methamphetamine tablet pressing laboratories.
Methamphetamine tablets were also reportedly manufactured in China. According to an analysis of seized methamphetamine tablets at the National Narcotics Laboratory in China in 2013, around 5 per cent of these tablets had originated from within the country. The high availability of ATS precursor chemicals in China could increase the risk of their diversion for methamphetamine manufacture. In recent years, there have also been reports of methamphetamine tablets being possibly manufactured in Cambodia and Viet Nam.
Emerging developments in the methamphetamine tablet market
Recently, there have been some indications of an emerging market for methamphetamine tablets in the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. Although the use of methamphetamine tablets in the Republic of Korea remains low, methamphetamine tablet seizures have recently increased in the country. In 2013, around 4,000 methamphetamine tablets were seized, which marks an almost ten-fold increase from the previous year. Increasing methamphetamine tablet seizures in Malaysia over recent years, also suggest an increasing availability for this form of methamphetamine in the country. Methamphetamine tablet seizures increased significantly since 2011, rising to 525,000 tablets in 2013. According to expert perception, methamphetamine tablet use in Malaysia remains limited, so that the increase in seizures might be due to an increase of transit trafficking.
However, in 2013, most methamphetamine tablet seizures in terms of weight were reported by China (45%) most of which originated in Myanmar, followed by countries in the Mekong sub-region, such as Thailand (44%), Lao PDR (6%) and Myanmar (4%). Less than 1 per cent of total methamphetamine tablet seizures reported in the region were reported in Malaysia Cambodia and Viet Nam.
Complex intra-regional crystalline methamphetamine trafficking
Unlike with methamphetamine tablets, which, by and large, remained a feature of the Mekong sub-region, crystalline methamphetamine has become a geographically wide-spread drug across East and South-East Asia. Between 2009 and 2013, the largest share of annual crystalline methamphetamine seizures in the region were reported by China, annually accounting for more than 50 per cent of regional seizures. Crystalline methamphetamine seizures in China almost doubled from about 4.5 tons in 2009 to 8 tons in 2013. Over the same period, crystalline methamphetamine seizures in Thailand have also annually increased from 0.2 tons in 2009 to 1.7 tons in 2013. Crystalline methamphetamine seizures in Japan have more than doubled between 2009 and 2013, but seizures have annually remained below 1 ton. In the Philippines, crystalline methamphetamine seizures have also increased from about 0.1 tons in 2010 to more than 0.8 tons in 2013. In Indonesia and Malaysia, crystalline methamphetamine seizures have annually fluctuated, the largest amount having been reported in Indonesia in 2012 at more than 2 tons and in Malaysia more recently in 2013 at 1.7 tons. The question arises whether the additional methamphetamine seized was manufactured clandestinely within the region or if trafficking from other regions also played a role.
Crystalline methamphetamine is reportedly manufactured in some countries in East and South-East Asia. In 2013, almost 390 methamphetamine laboratories were dismantled in China, a large share of which were found to be manufacturing crystalline methamphetamine. An additional 18 laboratories manufacturing crystalline methamphetamine were dismantled in Malaysia. Myanmar reported to have dismantled a large-scale crystalline methamphetamine laboratory in 2012 in the Kokang Special Region of the eastern part of the Shan State bordering China and there have been reports of crystalline methamphetamine seizures in other countries of the region that were perceived to have originated in Myanmar. According to expert perception, some crystalline methamphetamine manufactured in Myanmar was perceived to have been intended for the domestic market. This would represent a new development in a market traditionally characterized by methamphetamine tablet use. Crystalline methamphetamine was also perceived to have been trafficked from Myanmar to Thailand both for the Thai market as well as for onward trafficking.
From China, crystalline methamphetamine is reportedly trafficked to the Philippines and Australia. In 2013, more than 0.4 tons of crystalline methamphetamine were reported to have been seized in a single seizure at Subic Freeport in Zambales in the Philippines. Law enforcement authorities in the Philippines report that Chinese drug trafficking networks operating from mainland China and Hong Kong (China), are involved in the trafficking of crystalline methamphetamine to the Philippines. In Australia, crystalline methamphetamine was the most frequently seized ATS with over 1.2 tons perceived to have been trafficked from China between July 2012 and June 2013. Australia identified Hong Kong (China), and Thailand as the other embarkation points for crystalline methamphetamine in East and South-East Asia between 2012 and 2013.
The Republic of Korea is primarily identified as a transit country for crystalline methamphetamine trafficking. According to the Korea Customs Service (KCS), more than half of the crystalline methamphetamine seizures reported in 2013 were discovered in the post.
All in all, trafficking of crystalline methamphetamine, which is manufactured in and destined for the region, remains an important feature of the regional market and shows an increasingly complex pattern.
A growing inter-regional dimension of crystalline methamphetamine trafficking
Although crystalline methamphetamine continues to be manufactured within the region on a large scale, a complex international trafficking pattern of crystalline methamphetamine, originating in other parts of the world, has evolved in recent years. Large amounts of crystalline methamphetamine were perceived to have been trafficked to East and South-East Asia from Western Africa, Western Asia, North America, and, more recently, South Asia.
For some years, crystalline methamphetamine has been trafficked from Africa to a number of countries in East and South-East Asia, such as Cambodia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam, and, more recently, the Philippines. In Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, law enforcement authorities reported to have seized around 70 kg of crystalline methamphetamine in April 2014 which was perceived to have originated from Lagos, in Nigeria. According to expert perception, there has been an increase of crystalline methamphetamine seizures in Thailand in 2013 perceived to have originated in African countries. Crystalline methamphetamine trafficking by African drug trafficking networks has also been reported by Cambodia, the Republic of Korea and Viet Nam in 2013.
In recent years, East and South-East Asian countries have also reported of crystalline methamphetamine seizures perceived to have originated from Western Asia. Recently, there have been reports of large crystalline methamphetamine seizures perceived to have originated from the Islamic Republic of Iran that have been trafficked by ship. Indonesian law enforcement authorities, for example, have reported seizures of methamphetamine shipments perceived to have originated from the Islamic Republic of Iran, including 40 kg in February 2014.
For some years, large shipments of crystalline methamphetamine, perceived to have originated in Mexico were reported to have been seized in some parts of East and South-East Asia. In 2013, consignments totaling more than 0.4 tons of crystalline methamphetamine perceived to have originated from Mexico were reported to have been seized in Japan, followed by another crystalline methamphetamine seizure reported in Japan in March 2014, consisting of almost 0.2 tons of crystalline methamphetamine perceived to have originated from Mexico. Law enforcement authorities in the Philippines have reported of a methamphetamine laboratory that was dismantled in the country in 2012 operated by a Chinese drug trafficking group that was found to have connections with a Mexican criminal network. The Republic of Korea has also seized around 15 kg of crystalline methamphetamine in 2013, perceived to have originated from Mexico. According to a report by the Australian Crime Commission, Mexican drug cartels involved in methamphetamine trafficking have actively sought criminal partners in Australia to import the drug into the country. In addition, some countries in East and South-East Asia, such as Japan, have reported seizures of crystalline methamphetamine that were perceived to have originated from India.
On the whole, it seems reasonable to assume that lower priced methamphetamine tablets in East and South East Asia might be more attractive in lower income countries or to lower income groups of the population while crystalline methamphetamine appears to be more typical for higher income countries where its higher price and purity might be more affordable. While both the methamphetamine tablet and crystalline methamphetamine market segments seem to be expanding, the inter-regional dimension of trafficking has so far remained a feature of crystalline methamphetamine.
A number of questions arise from this development. Is more methamphetamine originating in Mexico shipped towards Asia because stagnating or even declining consumption of crystalline methamphetamine in North America is not absorbing the large amounts manufactured? Is the growing economic prosperity in many Asian countries and their large, young population attracting drug traffickers more than other regions? Clearly, the current dynamics of the crystalline methamphetamine market in East and South-East Asia and Oceania can no longer be explained with an intra-regional approach and global developments on the drug market need to be included into the analysis. More research and information is needed to better understand the differences in market features and the use patterns of crystalline methamphetamine and methamphetamine tablets, as these may require a diverse set of responses from law enforcement, as well as health and treatment providers.
The footprint of methamphetamine use in treatment data
Methamphetamine use in both crystalline and tablet form continues to be a major problem in large parts of East and South-East Asia. Methamphetamine users account for a large share of people receiving drug treatment in a number of countries. In 2013, China, Myanmar and the Philippines reported an increase of people receiving treatment for methamphetamine use from the previous year. For instance, in China the number of registered methamphetamine users increased by more than 40 per cent in 2013 since 2012. Moreover, people receiving treatment for methamphetamine use accounted for the largest share of people treated for drug use in 2013 in Lao PDR at 98 per cent, the Republic of Korea at 96 per cent, Brunei Darussalam at 96 per cent, Cambodia at 94 per cent, Indonesia at 80 per cent, Thailand at 90 per cent, and the Philippines at 83 per cent. According to expert perception, methamphetamine is the most commonly used drug among young drug users and among drug users arrested for the first time in Singapore in 2013.
The presence of methamphetamine tablets in the Mekong sub-region is reflected in data available on treatment. For instance, around 84 per cent of people receiving drug treatment in Thailand in 2013 had used methamphetamine tablets. Methamphetamine tablets are also of major concern in Lao PDR with users annually accounting for 95 per cent of people treated for drug use in recent years. Moreover, in 2013, methamphetamine tablet users accounted for more than 98 per cent of people treated for drug use at the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Center, in Vientiane, in Lao PDR.
With regards to crystalline methamphetamine, treatment data shows that this drug is becoming of growing concern for countries across East and South-East Asia and Oceania. For instance, in the Philippines, crystalline methamphetamine users accounted for around 75 per cent of people receiving drug treatment in 2013, which marks an increase of about 25 per cent from the previous year. Although the share of people treated for crystalline methamphetamine use in Indonesia is far lower at around 25 per cent, this still signifies an increase of almost 80 per cent from the previous year. Crystalline methamphetamine users also accounted for the second largest share of newly admitted patients receiving drug treatment in 2013 at 31 per cent, after heroin users who accounted for a 36 per cent share. Moreover, in China, crystalline methamphetamine users accounted for 70 per cent of synthetic drug users receiving treatment in 2013, while methamphetamine tablet users accounted for about 16 per cent. Among recent drug users aged 14 or older in Australia in 2013, crystalline methamphetamine had an annual use of 50 per cent, which marks a significant increase from the 22 per cent annual use of crystalline methamphetamine among this group of recent drug users in 2010.
In 2011, the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) in Myanmar conducted a study of methamphetamine users who had recently received treatment for drug use which found that 69 per cent were poly-drug users. With regards to methamphetamine tablets, smoking was found to be the most common mode of administration among this group of methamphetamine users in this study at almost 97 per cent, while injecting use accounted for the mode of use for less than 1 per cent of methamphetamine users. According to expert perception, smoking has also been the most common mode of methamphetamine tablet use in Thailand for several years, followed by oral ingestion. Injecting crystalline methamphetamine and methamphetamine tablets remained a limited mode of use in Thailand in 2013. Data remains limited with regards to recent developments of poly drug use and injecting drug use involving methamphetamine. These particular forms of drug use pose a serious challenge for treatment and health providers and more information and data is needed to design effective responses.
Treatment figures are difficult to interpret, an important caveat being that the overall prevalence of methamphetamine use and the proportion of users consuming methamphetamine in tablet form as opposed to crystalline methamphetamine among the general population is not known. Still, the available data indicate the importance of both forms of methamphetamine for treatment demand in the region, which, based on the analysis of the methamphetamine market presented is likely to increase.