The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced in its May report that East and Southeast Asia have experienced a massive expansion of its illicit drug supply in recent years as manufacturing has evolved and the scale of facilities has broadened.
Released last Friday, the report noted that the Covid-19 pandemic is unlikely to slow the illegal drug trade, especially since organised crime groups in the region have proven flexible, responding to shortages by risking more dangerous trafficking routes.
The upgrades in drug manufacturing have also created purer drugs for lower prices, the report said.
Most of the methamphetamine manufactured in East and Southeast Asia is also trafficked and consumed there.
“Trafficking in the lower Mekong region also takes place in a variety of ways across borders, which are porous and difficult to control. Cross-border movements in many places will not be significantly hindered by Covid-19 measures,” the report said.
It said drug trafficking will continue at a high volume as synthetic drugs continue to be produced in the Golden Triangle, the zone where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet and there is limited government regulation.
The region has been one of the leading opium-producers in the world for decades.
According to the UNODC report, the supply of precursor chemicals is not likely to be disrupted for the foreseeable future.
The report mentioned that local distribution will be affected by movement restrictions put into place by countries to combat the spread of Covid-19. It cautioned that economic hardships could increase crime.
“An already vulnerable population of drug users may be exposed to additional risks as funding is re-prioritised, access to programmes and services becomes difficult, treatment providers are hampered and communities concentrate on coping with the repercussions of Covid-19,” the report said.
The UNODC said the methamphetamine market in East and Southeast Asia and its neighbouring countries is worth up to $61.4 billion per year.
In Cambodia, the use of methamphetamine tablets, crystalline methamphetamine, ecstasy, heroin and ketamine increased last year, while marijuana and cocaine use decreased.
But Preah Sihanouk province is gaining importance as a transfer point for regional and inter-regional methamphetamine trafficking. Shipments of crystal methamphetamine have been discovered en route to the Philippines and Australia, according to the report.
It said in March, Thai authorities seized more than 600kg of crystal methamphetamine from several islands in Trat province, and the package was believed to be destined for Sihanoukville before being shipped elsewhere.
The four countries in the Mekong region – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – are also concerned about a sharp decrease in prices of the drug over the past decade.
“Notwithstanding the significant annual seizures of methamphetamine in tablet and crystalline forms, average retail prices have dropped to their lowest level on record, indicating widespread availability,” the report said about Cambodia.
According to data from the report, the price of one methamphetamine tablet was less than $2 last year, compared to $4 the previous year. The price of crystalline methamphetamine dropped from $20 per gramme in 2017 to less than $15 in 2018.
Deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) Mak Chito told The Post on Monday that despite the Covid-19 pandemic, drug traffickers were still in business, although their activities have slowed.
He said traffickers are afraid of the virus and authorities are strictly controlling border movements because of it.
“In the past, there were many borders crossings. Now, they are afraid of the police, Military Police and soldiers along the borders. So, we’re seeing that they are not so active in Cambodia,” he said.
“But on the global level, their activities are not decreasing,” he said, adding Cambodia is not a drug-producing country.
Chito said drug use across the world was skewed towards methamphetamine because it is easy to produce.
“We are doing better than other neighbouring countries because we have been trying hard through our anti-drug campaign. We prevent and crack down on drugs.
“But some countries have gangsters. We don’t have anything like the mafia,” he said.