Global scourge: synthetic drugs

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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