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Global scourge: synthetic drugs

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

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The UN agency finds that ATS abuse is rising sharply in many parts of Asia, particulary in the Southeast, as well as in parts of Europe, including many former Soviet satellites.

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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 regions.

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.