Meth soaring as UN expert urges regulation

Triple the number of methamphetamine pills were seized in East and Southeast Asia last year than in 2008, according to a UN report that shows in plain statistics the scale of the problem.

A total of 94,136,254 pills were seized in 2009, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a comprehensive study released this week. The previous year, only 31,950,374 were found.

This came after Anand Grover, a UN special rapporteur on health, called for legal regulation of illegal narcotics as the so-called “war on drugs” appears to have been lost. Grover released his report last month with stinging criticism of anti-narcotics policy.

“The primary goal of the international drug control regime, as set forth in the preamble of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), is the ‘health and welfare of mankind’, but the current approach to controlling drug use and possession works against that aim,” it said.

“Decriminalisation of certain laws governing drug control would improve the health and welfare of people who use drugs and the general population demonstrably.”

Statistics for seizures by Burmese authorities of methamphetamine pills within the country shows a marked increase between 2008 and 2009.

The UNODC report indicates that 1.1 million pills were seized in 2008, but last year the figure was 23.9 million. Gary Lewis, South Asia representative for the UNODC, told DVB that, “The report doesn’t go into this year…but initial indications point to a sustained trend in the amount of ATS [amphetamine-type stimulants] that is coming out of Myanmar [Burma]”.

The UN body states in its report that “this is likely due to increased pressure on the ethnic ceasefire groups, many of which manufacture ATS, to come under government control.”

Others corroborate that ethnic politics was a likely cause of the surge in production. It was reported that as the military government pushed its Border Guard Force plan, which requires ethnic armies to assimilate into the Burmese army or face attack, many increased production and smuggling of their lucrative drug businesses to purchase arms.

But it’s unlikely the vast rise in both regional and local seizures is solely attributable to Burmese ethnic politics, given that the region in question possesses around a third of the world’s population.

In neighbouring China, where an estimated 40 percent of regional drug hauls were made, the number of pills seized went from 6.3 million in 2008 to over 40 million in 2009. Heroin seizures also increased some 25 percent, despite repeated assertions that opium crops were being tackled, and the UNODC claiming that the number of hectares used for poppy cultivation in Burma had fallen.

Bertil Lintner, renowned Burma scholar and author of the formative book, ‘Merchants of Madness’, told DVB however that “seizures aren’t a very good indicator of production”.

Seizures in Burma, Lintner says, are often just a “propaganda” tool for junta to promote its anti-narcotics image. He notes however that in all likelihood production has risen because officials have seen the vast money-making potential in the business, and want a “piece of the pie”. He added that improved regional transport had also likely played a factor.

Southeast Asia has long been a global hub for narcotics production, particularly in the mountainous region known as the Golden Triangle that overlaps Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and the trade doesn’t appear to be nearing an end.

“We have to constantly look at the balance between public health and law enforcement and realise that we are choosing among problems not necessarily between solutions” Lewis said.

“What we would like to see is a rational debate on what level of control and what level of criminalisation is required. We have many member states of the UN that have effectively decriminalised the use of drugs and they’re experimenting and they’re looking at how to advance public health outcomes.”

The statistics will be sober reading for most governments, but perhaps not Burma’s whose statistics are roundly viewed with suspicion and whom commentators such as Lintner regularly accuse of colluding and profiting from the narcotics industry.

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