Global scourge: synthetic drugs
llegal and easily made narcotics such as
Ecstasy and meth spread rapidly, break traditional trafficking patterns
| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
From the August 07, 2003 edition
The dime-a-dozen storage unit in San Gabriel, Calif., yielded a big
find: Law-enforcement officials on Sunday uncovered 70 pounds of Asian
methamphetamine, carrying a street value of $3 million.
The largest US seizure of the pure and potent Asian variety of the
stimulant, it was also the latest evidence of the global rise of
powerful synthetic illegal drugs.
Two decades after the naturally derived drugs cocaine and heroin
washed over global markets, this new peril is hitting shores from Asia
to Europe like a tsunami. Synthetic drugs - principally amphetamines,
methamphetamine, and the "party drug" Ecstasy - are already heavily used
in some Northern "developed" countries but are now catching on among
other youth populations.
The head of the UN's drug-control agency says the world is not ready
for an "epidemic" that breaks familiar drug-trafficking patterns and is
dependent on weak states in much the way international terrorism is.
"We are facing a structural change in the drug market," says Antonio
Maria Costa, director of the Vienna-based UN Office for Drug Control and
Crime Prevention, which is releasing a report about the synthetic boom
this fall. "The old dynamic [with cocaine and heroin] that the South
produces and the North consumes is collapsing," he adds, noting that the
threat of a "lost generation" is now the worry of places like Manila and
Kuala Lumpur as much as Albany and Amsterdam.
These synthetic drugs are made with cheap and easily available
chemicals found in cough and allergy medicines. Billions of easily
consumed mood pills are flooding youth markets globally, according to
the UN report.
The US is not immune to the phenomenon. Methamphetamine and other
synthetics are "spreading from the West Coast to the East Coast like a
wildfire, and it's really pounding down in the Midwest," says Will
Glaspy, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in Washington.
"We consider this stuff to be the No. 1 threat in rural America today."
The rise of ATS, or amphetamine-type stimulants, concerns health
officials because they say their physical impact is cumulative and is
not naturally repaired once use ceases. Their abuse is all the more
worrisome because they are taken in pill form. "Popping a pill is part
of our system," says Mr. Costa. That leads to a common assumption, he
adds, that "if a kid pops a pill on a Friday night in a disco, so what?"
High number of abusers
The UN report estimates the total number of ATS abusers worldwide at
34 million - and rising. That compares with about 15 million heroin
abusers and an equal number of cocaine abusers - both groups of which
are generally older. Those demographics, combined with heightened
international pressure against cultivation of natural drug precursors,
explain a growing focus by organized crime groups on synthetic drugs,
Besides that, the easy use of drugs in pill form and their attraction
to young people have made them tools of choice for adults pressing
youths into sexual and other forms of servitude. For example, the
infamous boy armies that wreaked havoc on Sierra Leone in the late 1990s
were kept high on amphetamines, according to eyewitness accounts, to
lower psychological barriers to committing mayhem.
The UN agency finds that ATS abuse is rising sharply in many parts of
Asia, particularly in the Southeast, as well as in parts of Europe,
including many former Soviet satellites.
What makes synthetic drugs particularly difficult to control is their
origin in legally produced chemicals. On the other hand, the coca
plantations of South America and opium poppy fields concentrated in
central and east Asia - which provide the raw material for cocaine and
heroin respectively - can be spotted by satellite and targeted by
international interdiction efforts. (The UN reports that, overall, coca
and opium production is declining.)
But the precursors for synthetic drugs are chemicals, including
ephedrine, that are legally produced around the globe in huge
quantities. In the US, operators of mom-and-pop "meth" labs have cleaned
Wal-Marts and other retailers of over-the-counter products with
ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine, while larger producers have turned to
Canada and Mexico for chemical supplies, according to Agent Glaspy.
He says the necessary chemicals were more openly available in Canada
until last April, when a large binational drug operation resulted in the
arrest of 65 people in US and Canadian cities. They included six
executives from three Canadian chemical companies that knowingly
supplied methamphetamine manufacturers with chemicals.
In Asia, China and India are two countries where production has
boomed over recent years. Still, the chemical ephedrine "is a controlled
substance internationally," notes James Callahan, director of the UN
drug agency's Division for Treaty Affairs, "so it has to be regulated."
That's where weak states with low regulating capacities come in. In a
pattern that mirrors how international terrorist organizations and other
contraband operations work, the legal but controlled chemicals are
channeled through countries where civil conflicts or lack of
administrative control over all national territory leave the door open
to illegal transformation into ATS.
"It's a problem of countries or parts of countries where authority
has either disappeared, or it's corrupt," says Costa.
Hot spots in Asia
A case in point is Burma (Myanmar), which in a short period has
emerged as the largest ATS producer in Asia. The country sits between
two major precursor chemical producers, India and China, and has a
government that despite its authoritative image does not control all
Another source country is North Korea, with a significant proportion
of the amphetamines seized in Japan coming from the pariah state across
the Sea of Japan.
One thing the "weak" and "rogue state" theory of rising synthetic
drug trafficking fails to explain is why a developed democracy like the
Netherlands would be the largest source of ATS in Europe. Drug experts
say it may be a combination of a liberal society (the country is known
for its relaxed drug laws) with a highly developed pharmaceutical
industry - along with a lack of understanding of the damage that can
caused by synthetic drugs.