'Ice' still top illicit drug in S-E Asia

SINGAPORE - Crystal methamphetamine - better known by its street name "Ice" - remains the top illicit drug threat in South-east Asia, and Singapore is not spared.

In its latest regional drug report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that international drug syndicates have expanded their presence and increased the supply of Ice and other drugs in this part of the world.

"Transnational organised criminal groups active in the region's illicit drug trade continue to diversify their approach" by experimenting with different smuggling methods and routes, said the UNODC last Friday. "Groups from Africa and the Islamic Republic of Iran have continued to expand their trafficking of methamphetamine and other drugs into East and South-east Asia."

Consequently, anti-drug agencies in the region have intensified their efforts to stem the supply of Ice.

Singapore's Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) seized some 22.49kg of Ice in the first six months of the year, more than double the haul a year earlier. Between 2008 and last year, the amount of Ice seized by the Home Team agency rose 28-fold to more than 50kg.

Neighbouring countries including Thailand and Myanmar saw similar spikes in Ice seizures.

In Singapore, the growing supply of the drug has led to lower prices, even as its purity levels remained the same. The UN report says the street price of one gram of Ice in Singapore tumbled about 40 per cent to US$120 (S$149) last year, after holding steady at about US$200 in the previous four years. Yet, samples of the drug analysed last year averaged 74 per cent in purity, similar to that in previous years.

Its affordability is a key reason why Ice remains the most popular drug among first-time abusers, who are predominantly male, single and unemployed. CNB statistics show that in recent years, first-time abusers of Ice outnumber first-time heroin users by roughly two to one.

Many Ice abusers started taking the drug in their late teens or early 20s, senior counsellor Yeo Li Fern from the National Addictions Management Service told The Straits Times in an earlier interview. "Based on my clinical experience, 'Ice' is now the drug of choice among teenagers," she said, adding that an abuser usually consumes it with his friends at places such as clubs and void decks.

Besides Ice, the UN report also highlighted New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) as a growing area of concern. The broad category covers six chemical groups not controlled by existing international drug conventions, and that can mimic the effects of controlled drugs.

They include synthetic cannabinoids, which imitate marijuana; and phenethylamines, which act like traditional amphetamines.

It noted that Singapore is one of two countries in the region alongside Japan to have reported seizures of NPS across the groups, said the report.

Some "Ecstasy" pills seized here and in the region also contained NPS, it added.

While the use of NPS is not as widespread as that of traditional illicit drugs, the report said they are becoming increasingly available in the region.

On its part, Singapore has beefed up its drug laws to combat the emerging threat of NPS. A new Fifth Schedule that took effect in May allows the authorities to temporarily list such substances, granting CNB officers the power to seize them even before they are permanently banned.

"CNB is constantly monitoring the local drug situation in regard to new substances of abuse, such as synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones, all psychoactive substances," said a bureau spokesman.


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