VIENNA - Synthetic drugs have overtaken heroin and cocaine to become the second most widely consumed drugs in the world, the UN office on drugs and crime (UNODC) reported Tuesday.
"After cannabis, ATS (amphetamine-type stimulants) are the second most widely used drugs across the globe outstripping the use of heroin or cocaine," the UN agency said in its annual ATS report.
Amphetamine-type stimulants, which include ecstasy and methamphetamine, came behind only cannabis in terms of world consumption, the report noted.
But although a growing matter of concern, they have received less attention than cocaine or heroine, it added.
"Affordable and easy to manufacture, ATS are attractive drugs of choice for millions of drug users in all regions of the world and offer criminals a new entry into unexploited and fresh markets."
"Unlike plant-based drugs such as opiates or cocaine, synthetic drugs can be manufactured anywhere with little initial investment required on the part of criminals," the UNODC said.
The number of seizures in southeast Asia was indicative of the growing trend: while 32 million methamphetamine pills were confiscated in 2008, the figure grew to 133 million last year.
"The ATS market has evolved from a cottage-type industry typified by small-scale manufacturing operations to more of a cocaine or heroin-type market with a higher level of integration and organised crime groups involved throughout the production and supply chain," UNODC chief Yury Fedotov warned in a statement.
"We are seeing manufacturing shifting to new markets and trafficking routes diversifying into areas previously unaffected by ATS."
West Africa and Latin America for instance have seen a sudden boost in amphetamine production, according to the UNODC, which also warned of the health risks - especially of contracting HIV - linked with injecting ATS, a growing trend in Europe, as well as east and southeast Asia.
The appearance of so-called analogue substances to replace illegal stimulant drugs was also a key matter of concern, the agency said.
"Highly dangerous and as yet still deemed legal in many countries, these drugs remain widely available over the internet," it warned.