Asia's drug trade grows amid pandemic

·2-min read

Drug traffickers in East and Southeast Asia found ways to evade COVID-19 curbs to boost trade and diversify production, with Cambodia emerging as a large-scale source for methamphetamine, the United Nations says.

The trafficking of methamphetamine, or meth, by far the region's most popular drug, suffered a short-lived disruption during the height of the pandemic but rebounded to a higher level than a year before, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says in a report released on Thursday.

Authorities in Asia seized a record of almost 170 tonnes of meth last year, up 19 per cent from 2019, the report said.

"While the pandemic has caused the global economy to slow down, criminal syndicates that dominate the region have quickly adapted and capitalised," said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

In an effort to dodge COVID-19 restrictions, crime groups increasingly transported drugs through Laos - a small, developing nation with poor law enforcement - to traditional trafficking hubs in Thailand and Vietnam.

The report notes an emergence of large-scale meth production in Cambodia, although Douglas said the country's output was dwarfed by the still-thriving illegal drug production centre in Myanmar's Shan State, part of the Golden Triangle that also includes parts of Thailand and Laos.

"It looks like organised crime are hedging a bit and shifting some production so not everything is as concentrated," Douglas told Reuters.

Wholesale prices of meth declined in Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand due to the surge in supply.

The UNODC partially attributed the rise in supply to the ease in obtaining precursors to manufacture methamphetamine and other drugs.

The supply of synthetic drugs such as ecstasy, cannabinoids and ketamine has also expanded across the region, the report says.