Despite pandemic, Asia’s illegal drug trade thriving | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 11, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:30 AM, June 11, 2021

Despite pandemic, Asia’s illegal drug trade thriving

Experts tracking the illicit drug trade in Asia have, for some time, likened it to a tsunami - and it is not stopping. 

In fact, while the Covid-19 pandemic cut deep into the regular economy across the region, organised crime thrived, producing and distributing synthetic drugs in record quantities.

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A new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) confirms that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs - overwhelmingly methamphetamine - surged last year.

Available quarterly data from East and South-east Asia showed a drop in seizures in the second quarter of 2020 during the height of the pandemic, the report said.

But "seizures quickly rebounded from the third quarter, demonstrating the flexibility of organised crime groups to adapt to change and take advantage of porous borders in the region".

Seizures of methamphetamine in the region amounted to approximately 170 tonnes last year, a 19 per cent increase over the 142 tonnes seized in 2019.

This was primarily driven by increases in five lower Mekong countries - Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam - which accounted for 71 percent of total seizures.

The meth trade saw continued growth in East and South-east Asia last year, with a concentration of supply and seizures in the Mekong region. No new figures were given on the regional meth market value, but the last estimate two years ago, which included Australia and New Zealand, put the value at US$61 billion (S$81 billion).

The report also notes a continuous flow of methamphetamine tablets from Myanmar to South Asia. Last year, 36.4 million methamphetamine tablets were seized in Bangladesh.

The supply surge has fed rising usage.

"Thailand has reported a tenfold increase in the number of crystal methamphetamine users between 2016 and 2019, and price data reported by Cambodia and Malaysia showed decreases from 2019 to 2020," the report says.

The continuing methamphetamine market expansion is not the only worrying development. "The emergence of potentially harmful new psychoactive substances, including synthetic cannabis and designer benzodiazepines, has added to the complexity of the situation," the report added.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC's regional representative for South-east Asia and the Pacific, told The Straits Times: "There is no getting around the fact that the Mekong has a very serious organised crime problem - and the Golden Triangle remains the heart of the problem.

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