The agony and ecstasy of synthetic drugs

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

NEW YORK: The world is speeding up. Communications, travel, and productivity are increasing. For some people, synthetic drugs have become a way to deal with today’s fast and competitive times.

Around the world, in order to enhance performance, people are popping pills and powder known as amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS). From ravers in all-night discos to assembly-line workers or long-haul truckers, more than 30 million people use amphetamine, methamphetamine (meth), or ecstasy at least once a year – more than the combined number of those who take cocaine and heroin. The global market for these stimulants is estimated at $65 billion.

Part of the attraction of these synthetic drugs is that they are readily available, affordable, and convenient to use (no need to shoot up, snort, or smoke). Amphetamines speed up the way the body works: users experience increased confidence, sociability, and energy. This buzz is considered harmless: “pills do not kill or spread HIV/AIDS, it is said.

But what goes up must come down. People who become dependent on “uppers may suffer paranoia, kidney failure, and internal bleeding, and even serious mental health problems, brain damage, or heart attack. Meth users often develop rotten teeth and horrible scabs caused by scratching themselves due to a sensation of insects crawling under their skin.

The message about the dangers of ATS seems to be getting through to young people in the developed world, thanks in part to graphic public awareness campaigns. After substantial increases in the 1990’s – when meth was considered public enemy number one in the United States and Japan – the use of synthetic drugs has stabilized in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, albeit at high levels. In Australia, for example, 2.3 percent of the population use meth, and 3.5 percent use ecstasy at least once a year – one of the highest rates in the world.

Evidence suggests that the problem is shifting to new markets in East and Southeast Asia and the Near and Middle East. Asia, with its huge population and increasing affluence, is driving demand. In 2006, almost half of Asian countries reported an increase in meth use. This year, more than half of China’s provinces had serious ATS-related problems.

The upsurge is not limited to Asia. Something strange is going on in Saudi Arabia. Last year, the Kingdom seized almost 14 tons of amphetamine, mostly in the form known as Captagon (probably manufactured in Southeast Europe). That’s one-quarter of all amphetamines seized in the world. Seven years ago, Saudi Arabia accounted for only 1 percent of all such seizures. In South Africa, the number of seized meth laboratories has consistently gone up for the past five years, while domestic consumption has increased.

Part of the shift may be due to changes in demand. For societies in transition or going through rapid modernization, synthetic drugs seem to be a by-product of hyperactive growth. The shift is also due to a strong supply push from increasingly aggressive criminal groups with tentacles around the world.

A decade ago, synthetic drugs were a do-it-yourself cottage industry. The ingredients for meth, for example, are readily available, recipes are easy to obtain, and batches of the drug can be cooked up in a kitchen.

But in the past few years, the production of ATS has become a big global business. Organized crime is taking over all aspects of this illicit trade, from smuggling precursor chemicals to manufacturing and trafficking the drugs.

With little initial investment, industrial-scale factories can make huge profits by manufacturing millions of tablets. Increasingly sophisticated labs are being discovered in, for example, Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2007 alone, 75 ATS laboratories were seized in China. No doubt there are many other such labs in parts of the world where law enforcement is weak or corrupt, or local officials are complicit. Myanmar is a notorious example.

Producers and suppliers adapt quickly to the latest trends, and cater to local markets. When one lab is shut, another opens. When one type of precursor chemical is unavailable, producers switch to an alternative.

North America still accounts for 84 percent of all reported ATS laboratories in the world, and Western Europe has traditionally been a production center for synthetic drugs (particularly in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands). In the past few years, however, decreasing lab seizures in the US and the European Union have been offset by a rise in production in neighboring countries, like Canada and Mexico in North America, and Turkey in Southeast Europe. Greater regional cooperation is needed to prevent such displacement.

Before it is too late, countries in the developing world need to get their heads out of the sand. Many are in denial about the problem, and do not even report their situation to the United Nations. The most vulnerable are ill-equipped to fight the pandemic through information gathering, regulatory frameworks, law enforcement, forensics, or health care.

In general, more information is needed on new types of synthetic drugs (like the hallucinogen ketamine), developments in production techniques, emerging trafficking routes, and new markets.

Stabilization of the problem in the developed world shows that containment is possible. But unless more attention and resources are devoted to prevention, treatment, and law enforcement in youthful and increasingly affluent societies in the developing world, these countries may soon be facing a similar epidemic of drug abuse.

Antonio Maria Costa is Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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