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Global scourge: synthetic drugs

Illegal and easily made narcotics such as Ecstasy and meth spread rapidly, break traditional trafficking patterns.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2003


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.

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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, experts say.

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.