Home » Side Event: Synthetic drugs – why we need to worry

Side Event: Synthetic drugs – why we need to worry

Side Event: Synthetic drugs – why we need to worry

Organized by the UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section with the support of the United Kingdom

Monday 12th April 14.10-15.00 CET

Moderator: Sulaiman Zahi Muhammad (Science Secretariat, UK)

Martin Raithelhuber – Int cooderinator of Global SMART – focus on early warning and trends analysis

Why do we need to worry – well do we? General trends of synthetic drugs market – 2019-2020 data, show an increasing trend is continuing. COVID pandemic has only made small dent, since Apr-May 2020, seizure data has recovered. Three key themes in my presentation: mobility, integration into licit economy, innovation.

Mobility: Methamphetamine, fentanyl, MDMA – there has been a shift from China to Golden Triangle for methamphetamine production. Methamphetamine manufacturing coming up in unusual places – Afghanistan was typical for poppies, but methamphetamine production now increased. In Mexico, illicit manufacture of fentanyl has emerged. Western Europe is now a global supplier of MDMA. Which other countries will offer suitable conditions for synthetic manufacturing, after COVID?

Integration into the licit economy:

400 drugs are now scheduled under conventions, but only 30 precursors controlled, as so many have multiple licit uses. Here is a detailed chart to detail constant change in manufacturing – each new ‘trick’ broadens the toolbox of illicit manufacturing:

Innovation is an important element of illicit synth drugs market: NPS dynamics. The drug market was initially dominated by stimulants, cannabinoids and hallucinogens – NPS now cover all six groups, including opioids, sedatives, dissociatives. There are now 1047 different NPS worldwide.

Illicit synthetic drug manufacture is on the move and targets unexpected places. The dichotomy between drug-producing periphery and drug consuming high income markets no longer holds. Innovation is here to stay and needs to be integrated into forward-looking drug policy. What can be done? Stay informed, contribute to early warning systems – UNODC EWA, growing number of national EWS, regional EWS (eg EMCDDA) and CICAD in Americas. We need to look at life cycle perspective – not just end user perspective. Invest in science.

Methamphetamine in Europe and the Mexican connection – Ben Olde Engberink

Fight against methamphetamine is number one in Netherlands. Cooperation with Dutch organised crime and Mexican cartels. Criminals only active once to reduce arrest chance. Number of methamphetamine labs in Netherlands increased in 2020 by 30%.

Growing demands. Production almost same and no investments needed. Why Mexican cartels? Want involvement in EU market. Dutch is the market leader in MDMA  – perfect infrastructure for it.


European Multidisciplinary Platforms Against Crime Threats – based on priority crime threat. Operational Action Plan lead by Poland with all EU member states. Each MS can be involved in Action Plan. Methamphetamine from Latin America Operational Action plan, with focus on Mexico. Soon we will see if criminals have been affected by the pandemic.

Synthetic drugs in Eastern and Southern Africa

Jason Eligh

Global Initiative – Science behind the numbers


Map highlights methamphetamine in Eastern and Southern Africa – methamphetamine produced in South Africa since 1990s. Flows coming from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mexico – some chains are not confirmed. There’s a significant consumer population in South Africa. Methamphetamine is an anchor in South Africa, highest in the world by wastewater. The EMCDDA’s report highlights South Africa as having the highest methamphetamine consumption by city globally.

Methamphetamine market in South Africa has largely be stable but now decreasing – market being fed by very stable supply chain. Methamphetamine price is highest of all NPS in South Africa. Can’t value PWUD highly enough in this research. Methamphetamine report release a few weeks ago – goes into a lot more detail: Global Initiative: A Synthetic Age – The Evolution of Methamphetamineamphetamine Markets in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Conclusion: one of the challenges we have looking at synthetics in Asia – overestimating. Insufficient amount of research in these markets.

New sources and routes of methamphetamine trafficking to SE Asia and Oceania

Inshik Sim – Global SMART representative for the region

Drastic change in illicit drug market in the region (East and South East Asia), largely driven by lower Mekong countries. Mobility of manufacture in region – nowadays, it’s consolidated in this region. Golden triangle long associated with heroin, now methamphetamine. Purities of crystal methamphetamine in the region are high – 80% of base form. Prices of crystal methamphetamine in the region – 1/3 of price than 10 years. There are significantly limited seizures of key precursors. Chemical industries are rapidly developing. Ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, PCP – very low rates of seizure.

Increased use of non-controlled chemicals. There has been diversification of trafficking routes for amphetamine – SEA used as transhipment point for ‘captagon’ from Middle East – not clear what the intended market was. MDMA market very limited in comparison to methamphetamine. Mostly from Europe and increasing in region. Doses of MDMA per tablet is higher than 200mg – tablets may indicate that higher doses are manufactures in SEA than the standard tablet in Europe. 480 different NPS identified in region, including potent synthetic opioids and benzodiazepines – associated with overdose. Region is severely impacted, but has no capacity to use forensic related data and develop methamphetamine signature – testing is a luxury, but crucial in the region.


What plans does UNODC/EU has for Africa in terms of methamphetamine manufacture?

Ben: Biggest producers – Netherlands and Belgium. Produce more than enough for European demand – we think they produce mostly for export. Not aware of major seizures in Europe from methamphetamine originating from Africa.

Martin: Global synthetic drug assessment – whole chapter on synthetic drugs in Africa – huge increase in data from the last few years. We believe Africa is being targeted by methamphetamine trafficking – the UNODC raise awareness and knowledge in synthetic drugs in the region very limited – not a key discussion point in drug policy for the region. Drug demand institutions need to know what’s out there – needs to be technical solutions to detect drugs in region. UNODC working on this, but need to provide training. Labs focussing on heroin and cannabis will start discovering NPS without being properly trained.

Justice Tettey, UNODC: all presenters have made it very clear how different the NPS market is to traditional markets. Who would’ve thought, years ago, that methamphetamine would now come from Afghanistan and be targeting Africa and Australia. There are no easy answers. Forensic science – needs to be complemented by many disciplines. Thank you to the donors of Global SMART program. Video on disposal of seized drugs – UNODC applying synthetic approaches to this. www.unodc.org/lab: UNODC Virtual Lab Tour.

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