The Rise of Synthetic Drugs in Asia


On May 20, the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime released its Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment Report in Tokyo. UNODC chose Tokyo in recognition of the Japanese government’s history of drug enforcement. Members of Japan’s National Police Agency were in attendance to present information on global and domestic drug trends.

The extensive report shows that increased demand in East and Southeast Asia is driving continued global growth in production and distribution of ATS, or amphetamine-type stimulants—most notably methamphetamine—and NPS, or new psychoactive substances, including synthetic cannabinoids, which are known collectively as “spice.”

Asia continues to be the largest market for ATS, with seizures of methamphetamines in the region tripling over the five years starting with 2008 to reach 36 tons in 2012. In China, methamphetamine hauls have risen sharply and account for nearly 45% of total seizures in Asia. Another area seeing booming ATS trafficking and consumption is Thailand, which has seen a massive increase in pill and crystal methamphetamine over the last five years.

Worldwide Growth in Synthetics

Some major changes from conditions described in earlier reports (the report is released triennially) are the rapid expansion of trafficking routes and an explosion in new varieties of illicit substances available on the market. Justice Tettey, the UNODC’s laboratory and scientific section chief, drew attention to how new drug routes have nearly mimicked transportation lanes opened by growth of the global economy. He also highlighted the rapid growth of new drugs, showing that 348 NPS types were identified in 2013, an increase of roughly a third from the previous year. Tettey emphasized that efforts for reducing drug supplies, such as research, monitoring, and law enforcement, need to be carried out in tandem with programs for prevention and treatment.

Economic growth and booming demand for substances in Asia have become incentives for organized crime syndicates to expand smuggling efforts, with Asia and Oceania having seen an increase in drugs originating in the Middle East, West Africa, and Mexico. Methamphetamine and psychoactive drugs are also increasingly being manufactured in Asia as increased regional demand and poor regulation of precursor chemicals have enticed drug syndicates to set up more industrial-sized laboratories.

Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, noted that little is understood about the rapidly increases of ATS and NPS drugs on the market. The growing pressures these drugs place on law enforcement, legal systems, prisons, and medical systems are hard to weigh.

Drug Seizures in Japan on the Rise

In Japan, methamphetamine accounts for 84% of all illegal drug use, but Akagawa Haruo, director of the compliance and narcotics division at the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, said that use of synthetic cannabinoids—often referred to in Japan as dappo hābu, “herbs that skirt the law”—are on the rise due to low public awareness of their harmful effects.

Takesako Yoshiya, director for international organized drugs and firearms investigation at the National Police Agency, explained how the relatively high street value of drugs in Japan has been a factor in organized drug syndicates from Asia, Mexico, Africa, and other areas targeting the country. He noted that the price of methamphetamine in Japan is 10 times that in the regions where the drug is produced. He then cited efforts by Japanese law enforcement, such as increased arrests and broader checks at airports, toward decreasing availability of illicit substances on the black market.

A few days prior to the release of the UNODC report, the popular Japanese musician and songwriter Aska, half of the duo Chage and Aska, was arrested in Japan for possession of methamphetamine. Over the past few years a string of high-profile drug arrests of celebrities has drawn immense public attention and served to shine a light on the issue of drugs in the country.

(Banner photo: Musician Aska is transported to Tokyo Wangan Police Station, May 18. © Jiji Press.)

United Nations crime Chage and Aska drugs methamphetamine UNODC