Synthetic drugs flooding market, new UN study shows

20 May 2014

“An unprecedented expansion” of synthetic drugs is taking an ever-greater share of the illicit drugs market, according to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The 2014 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment also reports that new psychoactive substances (NPS) are flooding a market for synthetic drugs, which has long been dominated by amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) such as ecstasy and methamphetamine now more widely used than opium or heroin.

“There is a dynamic and unprecedented global expansion of the synthetic drugs market both in scope and variety,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at UNODC. “New substances are quickly created and marketed, challenging law enforcement efforts to keep up with the traffickers and curb public health risks.”

Marketed as 'legal highs' and 'designer drugs', the new psychoactive substances are proliferating but in the absence of an international framework, responses to the problem vary significantly from country to country, according to UNODC.

None of the nearly 350 NPS reported globally in over 90 countries at the end of 2013 is currently under international control. And although UNODC has detected 348 NPS, the actual number of these substances available worldwide may be significantly higher, given that this figure only reflects reports of official sources.

The report also notes that the term ‘new’ does not necessarily refer to new inventions but to substances that have been recently become more available like khat.

Khat, a plant-based NPS until recently confined to traditional use in East Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula, is increasingly being trafficked from East African countries, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, to European destinations, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and even as far afield as North America. Lately, khat has also been seized in East and South-East Asia, as cultivation of the plant has extended to that region.

Meanwhile, the use of synthetic cannabinoids, which mimic the effects of cannabis, is soaring; the total number of these substances almost doubled from 60 in mid-2012 to 110 by 2013.

The report notes that a particularly worrying development is that NPS are no longer restricted to niche markets.

Evidence from almost all regions of the world indicates that tablets sold as ecstasy or methamphetamine contain substances other than the touted active ingredients and are comprised of chemical cocktails that pose unforeseen public health challenges.

“Emergency services may therefore find themselves unable to identify life-threatening substances and powerless to administer the proper medical treatment,” UNODC says.

The 2014 synthetic drug report says the new global supply channels are linking formerly regional ATS markets. Supply routes to Asia, already the largest market for ATS and ecstasy worldwide, have emerged from West Africa and the Americas, the report says.

Since 2009, about 86 percent of ATS originating from West Africa seized at Western European and Japanese airports were destined mainly for Japan as well as Malaysia.

Rates of methamphetamine seizures are higher than ever across the world, largely driven by the rise in seizures in East and South-East Asia as well as in North America.

Methamphetamine, which can seriously harm users, continues to spread in Asia, posing a growing challenge to health care providers and drug control authorities dealing with large youthful populations.

The report quotes Turkish authorities as saying that Turkey serves as a transit point for methamphetamine smuggled from the Iran to East and South-East Asian countries.

Ketamine, a veterinary anaesthetic, is more widely misused in East and South-East Asia. Mainland China and Hong Kong accounted for almost 60 per cent of global ketamine seizures between 2008 and 2011.

Synthetic drugs have gained in popularity among the young. In parts of South and Central America, ATS use in younger age groups sometimes even exceeds that of cannabis and/or cocaine. In North America and Europe, certain NPS are more widely used by young consumers than traditional illicit drugs.

UNODC is continuously monitoring and researching global illicit drug markets in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of their dynamics. Drug trafficking is a key part of this research.


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