TOKYO - Strong and growing demand for drugs in Asia is driving up global production of methamphetamine, with seizures in the region tripling in five years to record levels, a UN body said Tuesday.
Both the use and the production of the drug is increasing, in line with the expanding economy of the world's most populous continent, leading to growing social problems and higher healthcare bills. Methamphetamine, also called "meth" and "ice", is an extremely addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Chronic use can lead to mood disturbances, violent behaviour and symptoms of psychosis such as paranoia and hallucinations.
To compile the latest report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) grouped together methamphetamine, amphetamine and other similar chemicals as "amphetamine-type stimulants" or ATS. It excluded so-called "ecstasy" drugs, which are usually reported separately in drug surveys.
"Over the years, methamphetamine seizures have been predominantly reported in East and Southeast Asia, in countries such as China, Indonesia, the Lao, People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand," the Office said ahead of the report's launch in Tokyo.
Asia has long been the world's largest market for methamphetamine and drug dealers are targeting its rapid economic success, the UN body said.
Roughly a third of the estimated US$90 billion (S$112.6 billion) illegal economy in Asia comes from drugs, said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
"The region has had a longstanding problem with... methamphetamine use," he said.
"It originated as a drug that was taken by poor people, traditionally workers. That migrated into youth culture over a decade ago," he said. "More recently, that has evolved into a growing prosperous youth culture.
"You have rising incomes occurring across the region. You have large, large youth population. So you have natural growth of the market" which has attracted criminals from around the world, Douglas said.
Seizures of ATS-related drugs tripled in Asia to at least 36 tonnes per year in the five years to 2012, the Office said.
China has had particularly severe problems, it said. In 2008, Chinese authorities seized six tonnes of methamphetamine.
That figure soared to more than 16 tonnes in 2012, accounting for about 45 per cent of total methamphetamine seizures for Asia that year, the UNODC said.
Thailand has also seen its highest levels of seizures of methamphetamine pills and the drug in its crystalline state in past five years, said the report.
Growing ATS use was accompanied by expanding regional production, with large bases seen in China, Myanmar and the Philippines, the UN body said.
The drug is often trafficked for long distances, the report said, and the routes being used by drug sellers are becoming increasingly well-trodden.
These are notably from Mexico, the Middle East, South and West Asia and West Africa to Japan and other lucrative markets in East and Southeast Asia and Oceania.
Ironically, the factors that are starting to boost living standards in Asia - greater regional integration resulting in improved trade - are also accelerating the spread of the drug.
Closer ties among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have increased the region's flow of people and goods, including drugs.
Criminal groups are increasingly opening drug factories in the region. They are known to provide cheap products when trying to cultivate a new market and to raise prices once new customers are addicted.
Southeast Asian states and other countries most affected by the crisis often have very little capacity to stop the crimes, Douglas said. The continued spread of methamphetamine across Asia also poses a growing challenge to justice systems and health providers in societies with large youthful populations, UNODC said.
Douglas stressed the need to strengthen police capacity and measures to fight crime and corruption, while intensifying research and public awareness of the problem.