Last year 227 million methamphetamine pills were seized in East and Southeast Asia — up 59 percent from the year before, and a more than seven-fold increase compared with 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.
“If you look at the five year trends, since 2008 the seizures have increased pretty exponentially,” said UNODC regional analyst Shawn Kelley, with data suggesting the trend continued into 2013.
He said the “huge spike” was due to increased efforts by law enforcement agencies as well as soaring production in Myanmar and an increase in the smuggling of drugs into Asia from other regions.
Seizures of potent crystal meth also increased, jumping 12-fold in Myanmar, 10-fold in Brunei, 91 percent in Hong Kong, 75 percent in both Indonesia and Cambodia, and 33 percent in Japan.
Methamphetamine can be ingested, smoked, snorted and injected.
In its pill form — known in Thailand as “yaba”, which means “crazy medicine” — it is used both as a party drug and pick-me-up for low paid workers with long hours.
Prices range from $3 a pill in Laos up to $20 in Singapore.
In China, methamphetamine is the second most popular drug of choice among the country’s more than two million registered users, after heroin.
It is ranked as the top drug of concern in Japan, where an estimated 0.2 percent of secondary school students have used meth, according to one government survey.
Between them China, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos seized 99 percent of all yaba in East and Southeast Asia last year, according to the UNODC report.
All of those countries showed significant increases on a year earlier, with Thai authorities netting 95.3 million pills — a 93 percent increase — while Chinese seizures rose 25 percent to 102.2 million, and Myanmar’s more than tripled to 18.2 million.
Much of the methamphetamine seized in Thailand is thought to be produced in neighbouring Myanmar.
Before the country began opening up to the world under a new reformist government in 2011, it was believed that rebels were increasing drug production to buy weapons amid tensions with the then-ruling junta.
“But now it’s still going on,” said Kelley, despite ceasefire deals between Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government and many of the armed ethnic minority groups.
The drug is mostly made in isolated mobile laboratories hidden in the forests of Shan State in eastern Myanmar, which is also the second-largest global source of opium after Afghanistan.
But at least one major “fairly sophisticated large lab” was discovered in 2012, with quantities of meth suggesting “industrial production”, said Kelley.
He added that some well-organised groups had financing from outside the country — with Myanmar’s meth labs relying on precursor chemicals smuggled from China and India.
‘Promotional sales’ to attract users
The UN estimates that heroin and methamphetamine generate sales of at least $30 billion in Southeast Asia and China annually. Methamphetamine is thought to account for around $16.5 billion of that — a sum that exceeds the annual economic output of Cambodia.
In Thailand the use of methamphetamine has become a major public health issue, said Kelley, with signs that traffickers are pushing “promotional sales” of the more potent crystal meth to develop the market.
Thailand saw a 63 percent increase in people admitted for treatment for yaba last year, to 245,920. The number of those given help for crystal meth, while still smaller at 16,500, was more than double the previous year.
Drug use among young people aged 15 to 24, manual labourers and farmers has “increased significantly”, according to the UNODC report.
Secondary school and university students were also increasingly using both yaba and crystal meth — also known as “ice”.
The UN said methamphetamine use in China, the other major market for the drug in pill form, was increasing “particularly among young drug users”.
In Myanmar, where heroin remains the chief drug of concern, there are rising fears over domestic use of meth, with the UN report highlighting increasing use in cities across the country and among young people.