Draconian Drug Campaigns Failing in Southeast Asia

Methamphetamine – known as shabu in the Philippines, ya ba in Thailand, ya ma in Cambodia, ice and speed elsewhere – is increasingly becoming known as the drug of choice across Asia, according to a new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report released earlier this week despite murderous anti-drug campaigns in the Philippines and Indonesia and crackdowns in other countries.

The increase in methamphetamine production over the past year has in fact led to an oversupply of the drug in East and Southeast Asia, according to the report. “Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia: Trends and Patterns of Amphetamine-type Stimulants and New Psychoactive Substances” covers major developments and challenges in the drug market in the region, which has been undergoing a profound change for the better part of a decade, driven by increases in the production, trafficking and use of synthetic drugs.

As drug use, particularly of methamphetamine, has risen, more countries have leaned towards adopting the scorched-earth drug campaigns first tried in Thailand in 2003 and more recently in the Philippines, where extrajudicial means were used to execute both dealers and users. In Thailand, where 2,800 were murdered, authorities have since said the campaign was a mistake and recommended legalization and drug treatment. An investigation by Human Rights Watch determined that at least half of those murdered were simply people the police wanted out of the way.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he would follow in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s footsteps and order the extrajudicial killing of dealers and users. There is no evidence that it has worked. There is no evidence that executions deter drug use anywhere in Asia.

The big question mark is the Philippines, where Duterte’s campaign against shabu since he took office on June 30, 2016 has resulted in the deaths of anywhere from 5,000 to 25,000 drug users – depending on who’s counting – as well as 164,265 drug arrests and, according to a study by the Carnegie Endowment, the corruption of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

The report, according to a Jan. 21 story in Asia Sentinel, found that police policies are “enormously corrosive of law enforcement, not to mention the rule of law. There is a high chance that the policy will more than ever institutionalize top-level corruption, as only powerful drug traffickers will be able to bribe their way into upper-levels of the Philippine law enforcement system.”

Did it do any good? If price is any measure, no. As the UNODC table below shows, the prices of most major drugs have fallen in the Philippines, indicating widespread availability. Crystal meth fell in price from US$163.7 per gram to US$130.1. Ecstasy fell in price from US$37.7 per gram to US$32.50, cannabis from US$3.20 per gram to US$2.30. Only cocaine rose in price from US$99.30 per gram to US$101.4. It should be noted that shabu is the drug most available by far in the Philippines.

The rising price of cocaine is probably due to its rising popularity, as drug traffickers have increasingly targeted the country for trafficking by sea, according to the report.

“Despite the heightened law enforcement measures, seizures of large-scale illicit methamphetamine manufacturing facilities, as well as trafficking involved with several hundred kg of the drug have been continuously reported in recent years” in the Philippines, according to the report. “In addition, sources of methamphetamine trafficked from oversea into the country appear to have diversified.”

Despite the enormous pressure the Duterte administration has brought against crystal meth, it remains the primary drug of concern in the Philippines, according to the report, accounting for “the overwhelming majority of the total number of drug treatment admissions over the last five years.” In addition, the report says, there is growing evidence that women are increasingly taking to the drug.

Whatever the pressure from Philippine authorities, drug manufacture and use apparently is diversifying. For the first time, authorities seized an “ecstasy” manufacturing facility in the country, which hasn’t happened since the monitoring of trends started in 2008.

“In addition, synthetic tablets containing MDMA in combination with methamphetamine and others, known as 'Fly high,' have been continuously seized in the country in recent years," the report notes. "Other new psychoactive substances is limited, although “national authorities have noted the increasing availability of Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GBL), sold as ‘liquid ecstasy.”

Across the region in addition to the Philippines, “Data on seizures, prices, use and treatment all point to continuing expansion of the methamphetamine market in East and Southeast Asia,” according to Tun Nay Soe, UNODC Inter-regional Program Coordinator. “Seizures of methamphetamine in 2018 were once again a record, yet street prices of the drug decreased in many parts of the region indicating very high and increasing levels of availability.”

Seizures of methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia, 2013 –2018*

Note: *Data for 2018 include only those confirmed by countries in the region.

Authorities seized at least 116 tonnes of methamphetamine in 2018, “representing a three-fold increase over 2013. UNODC estimates that when all the data for 2018 are available from countries in the region the total amount will be higher, and it is a substantial increase on the 82 tons reported in 2017.”

The countries in the Mekong region have born the brunt of the increase in seizures. In Thailand alone 515 million methamphetamine tablets were seized in 2018 -- 17 times the total amount of the drug seized a decade ago. Aside from China, annual seizures of methamphetamine in other countries also reached historic highs in 2018.

“Volumes of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs originating from the Golden Triangle to Thailand have reached unprecedented levels”, said Niyom Termsrisuk, Secretary General of the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) of Thailand. “Large amounts of synthetic drugs have been trafficked to neighboring countries in the region, but also further. The challenge is growing, and it is critical we work with UNODC and the region to curtail flows of precursor chemicals that are being used to produce methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs.”

While the market for methamphetamine continues to expand rapidly in East and Southeast Asia, a wide range of new psychoactive substances has also emerged in the region. By 2018, a total of 434 of these new substances were detected, including potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its analogues, which have laid waste to the United States, where tens of thousands of drug deaths have been recorded annually

The report called the emergence of these new drugs “a significant challenge for national authorities and people in the region. Aside from methamphetamine which is getting most of the attention because of the surge in seizures and street price drops, synthetic opioids and other drugs have also been found across the region”, said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

He added, “National leadership and authorities are starting to come to terms with how profoundly synthetics are changing the drug market, and we hope they use the coming Mekong Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok and ASEAN leadership meetings to reflect on the situation and their strategy – this is not business as usual, and it is past time to change the response.”