Asian integration a potential boon for drug trafficking

Southeast Asia is the second largest producer of opium in the world. It is also a growing market for amphetamine-type stimulants, especially methamphetamine, the top illicit drug threat in East and Southeast Asia, where seizures of methamphetamine in both pill and crystalline forms reached record highs in 2012, according to the UN.

Increased economic integration in East and Southeast is expected to lead to a rise in regional trade in heroin and methamphetamines, the UN said Tuesday.

"Rapid regional integration provides ample incentives for international drug trafficking syndicates," said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The UN office estimates that the region last year produced about 1.5 billion methamphetamine tablets and 900 tonnes of opium, with most of the illicit drugs originating in Myanmar.

While heroin and methamphetamines may be produced in Myanmar, primarily in the northeastern Shan State, which is largely outside government control, the country is dependent on imported precursor chemicals to manufacture these drugs.

Acetic anhydride, for instance, must be imported to produce heroin, while ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are needed to manufacture methamphetamines.

The UNODC warned that an increases in trade liberalization under schemes such as the ASEAN Economic Community, which goes into effect next year, could lead to an increased trade in these precursors.

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is part of the liberalization of trade and services in ASEAN, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

"While we're seeing and increase in production of methamphetamines and heroin for nearby markets, we're also seeing trade barriers dropping," Douglas said. "As legal trade accelerates, it is possible that will accelerate," Douglas said at the launch of two UNODC publications on the region's drug scene.

Regional seizures of methamphetamines reached a record high of an estimated 227 million pills in 2012, and a similar amount was seized last year, according to the UN reports.

Although seizures of precursor chemicals were down in the same period, the UNODC speculated that this might because of increased illicit trade in the chemicals.

"An awful lot of pharmaceuticals are entering Myanmar from northern India, for example," Douglas said. Legal pharmaceuticals, such as cold medicines, often contain chemicals such a pseudoephedrine, which can be extracted to produce methamphetamines. Myanmar has been opening its doors to international investment and trade over the past two years as part of its reform programme, which is likely to accelerate next year under the AEC.