The rise in production, trafficking and use of methamphetamines in South Asia

We need a global shift in Drug War policy to prevent another bloodbath. 

The recent arrest of Pakistan’s leading Prime Minister Candidate on charges of allowing huge quantities of chemicals to be illegally channelled to methamphetamine manufacturers has highlighted the growing production, trafficking and use of methamphetamines in Southeast and East Asia. 

While the US war on drugs in Latin America is quite widely publicised, the rapidly increasing illegal amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) market in Southeast and East Asia has been less noticed by the international community. 

Makhdoom Shahabuddin of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been accused of abusing his former position as health minister two years previously, to allow the manufacture of large amounts of ephedrine by two pharmaceutical companies. The ephedrine was then supposedly passed to producers of methamphetamine, a market worth billions of dollars. 

The global, and in particular the United States’ War on drugs, has been an undeniable failure.  Since the drugs war was declared 41 years ago, the US and other governments have spent huge amounts of money and resources in efforts to reduce cultivation of marijuana, opium poppies and the production of cocaine and heroin. Despite this, the Global Commission on Drug Policy reports that the global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5%, cocaine 27% and cannabis 8.5% from 1998 to 2008. 

The result of the war on drugs has been a massive augmentation of drug-related violence, corruption and human rights violations, which is spreading across numerous Latin American countries.  

Iran, Pakistan and other South Asian countries have a rapidly growing methamphetamine market, due to the ease with which the drug can be manufactured, and the huge demand within the region. Criminal organizations can use political leverage to access these countries relatively advanced pharmaceutical industries to obtain the two main ingredients for methamphetamine: ephedrine and pseudoephredrine. These chemicals are used to make common cold medicine, but can be easily made into meth at home or in a lab in any part of the world. 

It is estimated that the number of amphetamine-type substance users people worldwide is up to 56 million, 21 million of these located in East and Southeast Asia, according to the U.N.

East and South-East Asia has the greatest number of ATS users in the world, with methamphetamine being the drug of choice for most users. Meth use in the region has now surpassed plant-based substances, with more meth users than cocaine and heroin combined.  

Methamphetamine is a white, odourless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that is soluble in water or alcohol. It is available as a powder or in crystalline or tablet form.  It can be ingested, smoked, snorted, sniffed and injected. 

Its popularity in the region is due to the fact that it is cheap, and is thought to improve work performance, without undesirable side-effects. It is used by people from all sectors of society.  Its use is prevalent among the middle and upper classes, but research shows that those who are at particularly high risk are the marginalised groups of society, including youth, homeless and workers in low-paid labour intensive work, and sex workers. 

In terms of manufacture, the drug can be easily and cheaply produced from readily available precursor chemicals. Trafficking routes continue to develop, and we are seeing a rise in transnational criminal organisations becoming involved with trafficking of methamphetamine in the region. 

While meth can be smuggled in pill form disguised as vitamins, the vast amounts of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine that goes into meth production is acquired from pharmaceutical companies and then diverted to criminal drug organisations. It is in this mechanism that Shahabuddin is suspected to have played a role. 

Thus relatively new, swiftly emerging illegal drug market is largely unregulated. The drug is prolific worldwide and particularly in the South Asian region. This, and the marked ease with which it can be manufactured, means that its eradication, both in terms of its use and production is an impossible task. 

The expanding methamphetamine market has unsurprisingly led to a sharp increase in methamphetamine-related arrests.  In 2010, nearly 218,000 arrests in the region involved methamphetamine, a 19% increase on the previous year. Methamphetamine accounted for 87% of all drug-related arrests in Brunei Darussalam, 83% in Japan, 80% in Thailand, 77% in the Philippines and 70% in the Republic of Korea.

As it stands, HIV contraction is rising in the region, due to a lack of availability of sterile needles for people who inject meth and other amphetamines. As the market grows criminal organisations gain power. The looming military and police clamp-down on drug users, means a massive increase in incarceration and executions will ensue as well as increased cartel violence, all of which disproportionately affect the most marginalised people of society. 

The aim of world leaders and organisations should be to try to avoid another situation similar to that of Latin America, and instead think about alternatives to fighting a war that can never be won.  Drug policy needs to become more humane and more effective, something that Latin American leaders only now seem to be considering, as the death toll reaches intolerable figures. Decriminalisation of possession and regulation of distribution should be an aim, with a focus on treating users in the health sector, rather than as criminals.