Vientiane (Lao PDR), 28 May 2024 – The synthetic drug market in East and Southeast Asia continues to grow at concerning levels, as organized crime groups leverage gaps in law enforcement and governance challenges to traffic large volumes of drugs and expand their production, a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows.

The report, titled “Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: latest developments and challenges 2024”, confirms that 190 tons of methamphetamine was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2023 – a record level. After dropping slightly in 2022, seizures of methamphetamine rebounded in 2023 to the highest amount ever recorded for the region.

“The drug trafficking and production situation has become increasingly complex,” said Masood Karimipour, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Organized crime groups are lowering the production costs and scaling up production by using non-controlled chemicals. With scaled-up production, shipments involving over one ton of drugs have become more frequent, which in turn leads to further price drops as availability and affordability increase.”

Taking advantage of the region’s extensive trade infrastructure, organized crime groups are increasingly linking land-based trafficking corridors and maritime routes to escalate maritime trafficking of high-volume shipments, such as the route to the Gulf of Thailand, which crosses several land borders in the lower Mekong region. Throughout 2023 and into early 2024, large shipments of over one ton of methamphetamine, often alongside ketamine, have been seized en route to or on maritime routes.

Organized crime groups are increasingly using the Gulf of Thailand to transport substantial quantities. However, despite the large volumes of seizures and high inflation observed since the COVID-19 pandemic, prices of methamphetamine and ketamine have continued to drop. The wholesale price of methamphetamine is now reaching as low as US$ 400 per kilogram in production areas, pointing to growth in production and strong supply in the regional synthetic drug market.

The report, which was announced at a meeting in Bangkok? among drug control officials from the Mekong region, points out that Shan State in Myanmar continues to be the predominant source of synthetic drugs in the region, but the illicit manufacture of synthetic drugs is expanding to neighbouring countries. It also highlights the sophistication of organized crime groups operating in the region, which are increasingly using a variation of non-controlled chemicals available to expand production while minimizing disruptions to their supply chain.

At the same time, new synthetic drug products have emerged in the market to appeal to young users. “Happy water” in sachet form emerged a few years ago and can now be found in multiple countries in the region. More recently, another synthetic drug product has entered the market, called “party lollipops”. These lollipops have been found to contain multiple substances, such as ketamine, MDMA, and benzodiazepines, which can pose irreparable harm to users. Some are even packaged in well-known product brands, increasing the danger to the public.

“The emerging use of non-controlled chemicals is a major concern for the region in addressing these challenges” said Reiner Pungs, UNODC’s lead drugs expert for Southeast Asia. “An effective response will require investments in both regulatory frameworks and enforcement capacities, and more active monitoring of the legal chemical trade.”

UNODC will continue to work with countries in the Mekong and beyond to better respond to these evolving threats,” Karimipour said. “Supporting platforms for discussing gaps and developing solutions, as we are doing in the Mekong, is a key step in that direction.”

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