The United Nations is growing increasingly alarmed at the rising volume of unregulated chemicals for making methamphetamine headed to Myanmar, the hub of the region’s billion-dollar drug trade, and is ramping up efforts to get its neighbors to stem the tide.
U.N. staff have been holding meetings and training governments across the region to persuade and teach them how to spot and seize seemingly anodyne shipments of chemicals with legal applications that are likely headed for Myanmar’s booming meth labs as precursors.
Falling street prices for methamphetamine across Southeast Asia and record seizures in recent years suggest the labs are churning out more drugs than ever, much of it headed as far away as Australia and Japan.
For many of the chemicals used to make that meth, “there [are] no real regulatory measures,” Inshik Sim, a research officer for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, for the Asia-Pacific region, told VOA in recent days.
“It is quite important to know … who’s the end user for these chemicals, but that is really missing in this region,” he said.
Some of the chemicals are closely watched.
The 1988 U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances lists 33 chemicals commonly used to make methamphetamine and other narcotics. Whenever any one of them crosses international borders, the exporting country must notify the country it is destined for, to help them track the shipment and make sure it ends up where it is supposed to and is not shunted, or diverted, along the way.
As those chemicals become harder to source, however, creative chemists working in Myanmar’s drug labs are learning to make them on their own with other, noncontrolled chemicals not on the list. Sim told VOA the pace at which Myanmar’s drug gangs are making the switch has picked up in the last few years, judging by the growing number of noncontrolled chemicals suspected of heading for the labs that authorities in the region have been seizing.
Out of control
“As organized crime groups have been trying to circumvent the existing regulatory framework, either at the global level, like [with] the U.N. drug convention, or at the national level, they continuously look for alternative chemical substances,” Sim said.
“Sourcing the controlled chemicals is not easy anymore for those organized crime groups. That’s why they’ve been relying increasingly on those noncontrolled chemicals, because it’s easier for them,” he said.
According to data compiled by the UNODC, seizures of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other controlled chemicals popular with Myanmar’s meth cooks have been suspiciously low in the last few years across the region.
Yet in Myanmar itself, local authorities last year seized more than 3 million pseudoephedrine tablets that had arrived in two massive shipments from India. While pseudoephedrine in its raw form is controlled, tablets of it mixed up with other ingredients are not.
In its latest annual report on Asia’s synthetic drugs trade, the UNODC called the growing use of noncontrolled chemicals “one of the most serious challenges” to efforts to control the flow of precursor chemicals into Myanmar.
At the same time, it called the response of regional governments to the problem “ineffective,” riddled with “major gaps” in regulation and enforcement.
To help fill those gaps, the UNODC has been holding meetings with the pharmaceutical and drug enforcement agencies of a number of countries to highlight the problem and advise them on solutions.
It held a meeting on drug precursors in Vietnam late last year, in Malaysia and the Philippines in July, and in Laos last month. Sim said the trafficking of precursor chemicals also featured prominently at a meeting last week on combating the region’s drug trade in China with the lower Mekong countries and would likely figure at a regional meeting on the drug trade in India next month.
China and India make most of the chemicals ending up in Myanmar’s meth labs.
Part of the challenge, Sim said, is that some officials are focusing on controlled chemicals only, thinking their noncontrolled building blocks, or pre-precursors, are not a problem.
“We have seen that for many, many, many times,” he said. “That’s why we try to change their mentality of [how to] look at the chemical issues — even if it’s noncontrolled, you really need to pay attention. That’s our job.”
Making the list
Another part of the job is making it easier for countries to notify each other when chemicals with drug-making potential cross each other’s borders.
The U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board, or INCB, launched an online Pre-Export Notification, or PEN, system for government agencies to report the export of controlled chemicals in 2006, and a “light” version for noncontrolled chemicals last year.
“The continued evolution of illicit drug manufacturing and the growing importance of synthetic drugs are at the core of the development of the PEN Online Light system,” Antonio Mazzitelli, head of precursors control for the INCB secretariat, told VOA.
“PEN Online Light offers countries the opportunity for moving towards a more proactive, preventive approach,” he said.
Yet another approach is to reclassify more precursor chemicals from noncontrolled to controlled. The U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs meets annually to decide whether to add more chemicals to the 1988 convention; it has added 10 in the past eight years.
Sim said the drug gangs are learning to substitute and make their own precursors faster than the commission can add them to the list, so it encourages countries to add internationally noncontrolled chemicals to their own national lists. He pointed to Thailand, a popular thoroughfare for the chemicals headed to Myanmar’s drug labs, as a good example.
Thailand added sodium cyanide to its list of controlled chemicals in November.
Prin Mekanandha, director of law enforcement at Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board, said sodium cyanide is commonly, and legally, used by the country’s gold mines. It can also be used to make meth but is not covered by U.N. convention.
Days after Thailand designated sodium cyanide a controlled chemical, it seized 220 tons shipped from China and likely headed for the drug labs. Prin said the delivery would have been enough to make some 4.8 million meth tablets.
He agreed that the drug gangs’ use of noncontrolled chemicals was a growing problem.
“In the past they didn’t use sodium cyanide to produce the methamphetamine, but right now we control the sodium cyanide,” Prin told VOA Monday.
“We have to follow them and [find] the evidence that they use the noncontrolled [chemicals], and then we try to [change] the noncontrolled to controlled,” he added. “We follow the situation.”