Side event: Addressing the dramatic growth of synthetic drugs underway in the Mekong region of Asia

Organized by the Government of Thailand and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Chair: the levels of drugs in the Mekong has reached crisis levels.

Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand: we call for more attention and coordinated efforts to tackle the alarming synthetic drug situation in the Golden Triangle. In recent years, countries in the Mekong region have faced over-supply of synthetic drugs particularly methamphetamine. It has become more accessible and available, despite efforts to disrupt supply and precursor chemicals. We need new strategies to ensure improved controls. The Thai government has a proactive policy and initiatives against the supply of drugs. Thailand has been a strong proponent of the Safe Mekong Initiative, which includes Lao PDR, China, Cambodia and Vietnam. It has been expanded to achieve more concrete results in the 4-year plan.

More needs to be done. Countries need to work together in a more concerted and trilateral manner. The drugs problem remains serious. Focussing on the shared border of the countries, I ask China for further cooperation. I express sincere thank for all country partners, and for the UNODC for their long term commitment and leading role, as well as its work on reporting and organising the high-level conference on precursor control. I would like to reassure you of Thailand’s full support for the success of the Mekong agreement, in the fight against drugs.

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, UNODC: UNODC is proud to serve as secretariat for the Mekong agreement. The office is also implementing programmes in other fields of health, trafficking and alternative development. The changes in drug trends in the Mekong are due to changes in transnational organised crime activity. There have been huge seizures, even in recent weeks, along with price drops. Organised crime groups are exploiting differences in the law enforcement strategies of various countries, and the industries in precursor chemicals, as well as expanding the market demand for drugs.

Mekong countries agreed a plan on key actions together with UNODC. It is designed to mirror the UNGASS 2016 outcome document and recommendations. Actions include a major conference, gathering regional intelligence together with UNODC in Thailand to operationalise border liaison offices, exchanging experiences between producing communities, and holding alternative development conferences together with civil society. Looking ahead, Thailand will host a Mekong conference in June to take stock of progress and agree on a new political statement. UNODC remains committed to supporting these efforts.

Deputy Director-General, National Narcotics Commission of China: thank you fellow colleagues. The Mekong MOU was set up to tackle production, trafficking and abuse. It has served to handle the drug problem, promote regional and international cooperation on drug control, and maintain peace, prosperity and security. The MOU remains an applicable model. We should be clearly aware of the worsening situation worldwide, as well as the problems in the GMS. Not only is opium cultivation increasing, so is synthetic drugs. Methamphetamine, both crystalline and tablets, and ketamine are in supply. Much more remains to be done. The 6 Mekong countries should stand firm, hold hands and fight hard. We should strengthen political will to address regional drug problems and translating rhetoric into action. We need to further unleash our advantages in launching and implementing our projects based on our realities. We also need to expand our cooperation with others outside the GMS with an open mind-set. I look forward to your support. It is our solemn commitment to make the GMS our top priority. China will work with all parties to promote the sustainability of the MOU.

Permanent Representative of Myanmar to Vienna: it is an honour to speak on behalf of our minister. As the Golden Triangle covers the areas that produce opium poppy, our countries have signed the MOU to take the production, trafficking and use. Under this MOU we have worked for more than 25 years. The supply of synthetic drugs has increased, along with the movement of precursor drugs, which have now emerged as a prime threat to the region. Illicit trafficking of drugs is a big business, bringing in many profits. Illicit drug threats in the region are caused by transnational organised crime. Controlling the movement of precursor chemicals and tackling transnational organised crime is key to reducing the supply of drugs in the region. We need to make reducing the supply of precursor chemicals our priority. We need to consistently observe the changing trends of drug-related crimes and associated activities, especially the activities of organised crime. I hope the MOU will provide the ideal platform for addressing these challenges.

The government of Myanmar has been a main task for the nation. Taking into consideration international trends, harm reduction, the Myanmar drug law was amended in 2018 and regulations to enable effective implementation are being drafted. A drug policy has also been adopted, based on the UNGASS 2016 outcome document, which cover supply and demand reduction, harm reduction and consistency with human rights. The government of Myanmar and the people have been fighting the drug problem, which has led to a reduction in the volume of opium production. Recently, the government has established a joint initiative with Thailand. As illicit drug production and trafficking are the main factors disrupting the peace process, we are collaborating with armed groups to address this.  The challenges of the world drug problem cannot be tackled alone, they must be addressed with Mekong partners and other members of the international community. We will be fully committed to implement the MOU together with partners.

Deputy Minister of Ministry of Public Security, Vietnam: beginning in 1993, 26 years has passed since the Mekong MOU was formed, stemming from practical needs to address drug evils. A sub-regional action plan has been implemented. The governments under the MOU take measures to reduce supply and demand, and harm, in each of the countries. Multilateral collaboration has risen to a higher level. The sub-region faces many difficulties. After eradication of opium cultivation, it has been returning since 2006. The use of drugs is also increasing, especially of methamphetamine. Transnational organised crime has increased, along with methamphetamine production. Greater pressure is put on drug control efforts to protect the health and well-being of people.

The government of Vietnam always devotes resources to tackle drug problems, making an important contribution to national security, maintaining social order. We consider prevention to be the primary intervention. Vietnam has many strategies including law enforcement, poverty reduction, alternative development programmes, and drug treatment and rehabilitation programmes. Against the complexity of the drug situation, especially methamphetamines, there is a need to implement prevention programmes. Facilitating comprehensive international cooperation, to control the supply of methamphetamines along with its precursor chemicals, is important. The adoption of the UNGASS 2016 outcome document helps to ensure regional security. We highly appreciate the role of the partners and international community in the Mekong MOU.

Chair: I also welcome the participation of the Permanent Representative of the Lao PDR to the UN and the representative of the National Authority for Combating Drugs.

Regional Representative for Southeast Asia, UNODC: I have the pleasure of briefing you in some depth on the situation that the previous speakers have touched upon, the dramatic increases in the supply of synthetic drugs. What we have experienced in the past decade is a shift from opium to synthetic drugs, especially methamphetamine. Most countries report that methamphetamine is their primary drug of concern, using indicators such as seizures and treatment. All of the MOU countries except Vietnam are reporting this to us.

I commend Myanmar and Lao for their efforts to reduce the level of opium poppy cultivation. There has been a 35% drop since 2013, as well as decreases in the seizure of heroin. We still see about 15 tonnes produced in the Golden Triangle, about which 10 tonnes are seized.

While we have seen a decrease in opium cultivation, there has been a significant increase in methamphetamine seiures, about 16 tonnes, which places the region as the leading one in the world for methamphetamine. At the same time as this surge, we have seen a decrease in the number of drug laboratories seized. Production of ketamine has been known to take place alongside methamphetamine in the same facility.

In Southern Shan state, there has been an interesting seizure of green-coloured methamphetamine.

Thailand has made most of the seizures of the past year, about 80 tonnes. Seizures of crystal methamphetamines have amounted to about 18 tonnes. Most of the seizures have taken place in northern Thailand. To put it into context, the amount seized by Thailand last year exceeded the total amount seized in ASEAN 10 years ago by 9 times. I commend the efforts of governments to build the resilience of communities to organised crime. We are now seeing Thailand move from a yaba market to a yaba/crystal methamphetamine market.

Shipments of methamphetamine have moved from Thailand to Malaysia and then other parts of Asia. There have been pronounced volume of methamphetamine to Lao PDR, to circumvent the heavy controls that Thailand has put in place in other parts of the border.

One of the most interesting indicators is price, which shows how seizures are affecting availability on the street. What we are seeing is no effect as prices have been decreasing. We are seeing an engineered surge in the availability of methamphetamine, where there is now an oversupply of the drug at low prices not just in the Mekong but beyond. It is not unreasonable to expect that shipments of the drug will move beyond Australia, Korea and Japan.

One of the things that worry us greatly is the supply of precursor chemicals. This is very troubling data for us. We have seen the supply surge which indicates there is no shortage of the precursors available. There is also a diversity in the precursors used.

We have seen the significant drop in opium cultivation, and again I congratulate Myanmar and Lao in achieving that, but we also see significant displacement. I’m very pleased we are implementing a new precursor project with other partners in the MOU. We believe that Malaysia will continue to be a major transit point for drugs coming out of the Mekong.

There has also been significant shifts in the use of transport modes, eg. in the use of parcel post. Shipments of crystal meth have been going to New Zealand via parcel post.

Money laundering is another issue, so we are looking at working with this group to monitor illicit financial flows including through casinos.

The crucial point is the impact on public health. With increased drug use, comes increased risks and the need for drug treatment.

The Mekong MOU mirrors the UNGASS in several ways. There are four thematic areas prioritised by this group: drugs and health, law enforcement cooperation, legal and judicial cooperation and sustainable alternative development. We get together to refresh the plan through regional drug policy coordination. We have regular meetings to discuss our joint efforts, and to visit affected areas. We are looking at increasing work on health responses, and I see some of the international supporters here, our work includes HIV prevention services for women who use drugs, and working with ASEAN clusters on people who use drugs, particularly in relation to community-based treatment where we deliver capacity-building.

We deliver training to border liaison offices as well, along with other law enforcement collaboration. We also provide drug policy advice, and had done so with Myanmar. I encourage everyone to look at their drug policy, which implements the UNGASS document, as they need financial and technical resources to support its implementation. Key events for 2019 include an alternative development conference, ASEAN and dialogue partners border management meeting, regional training on HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for people who use stimulant drugs on 22 – 25 October together with China, and a regional workshop on improved data collection.

In response to a question from the floor about syndicates trafficking wildlife and drugs. The UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia confirmed that this does occur in the region.

Question from Bangladesh: Bangladesh is a small country, and since 2006, we have seen an increase in the supply of methamphetamine. Is there a plan to collaborate with Bangladesh?

UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia: Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to establish a border liaison office. We stand ready to support this initiative. The surge of supply in Bangladesh corresponds with the surge that we see in the Golden Triangle. Bangladesh can join some of the activities under the MOU, as an observer.

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