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Non Traditional Threats: South Asia's “Meth” Traffic
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 20 Jul , 2017

The intensity of the issue within South Asia is clearly visible from the fact that, those nations which are principle “consumers” of methamphetamines, be it Laos, China and Myanmar, are not only the largest consumers, they also make a major “profit” from the largest drug trade in the history of South East Asia. There “illicit” revenue has further infuriated member nations of South Asia, particularly those which have designated law enforcement agencies to apprehend drug traffickers in their region.

The source of drugs followed by the cloaked “trade routes” of “meth” has not only angered South Asian member countries but a rift between nations “could result in an intense conflict”. The reasons behind a flourishing “cloaked trade” could only be possible with a strong support from elements operating “actively” in countries within South Asia.

A look in history

Methamphetamines stimulants are very strong in nature and addictive which not only “adversely” affects the “consumers” central nervous system but also results in excessive mood swings, behavioural disturbances, and escalates violence, rage, followed by symptoms of nervousness, excessive sweat, hallucinations and symptoms of paranoia. This drug is frequently consumed through meals, smoke, injection, can also be inhaled. The drug further boosts “self-esteem” while boosting “moral” of the consumer, leaving behind visible symptoms such as anxiety, excessive fatigue, and chronic depression. It is important to understand that, Asia has been the longest consumer of methamphetamine, which has deeply penetrated Asian “culture”.

Initially, opium was principally consumed in Asia due to its vast availability and cheap costs, a “valued” choice among addicts; although, it’s after-effects resulted in “excessive” damage to internal organs. Consumers, after prolonged usage, were felt lethargy and showed “signs” of physical weaknesses, hindering their ability to work. The history of massive distribution and consumption of methamphetamine can be traced back to the World War II, then, the consumer worked for long hours with minimal or no sleep, making it a “preferred” option for workers in construction and mines. For many years, methamphetamine became, from an “energy booster” to “daily part of diet”, with large consumers in comparison to opium, making it a primary “demand” and “supply”.

With the onset of industrial development in the early 1980s, the demands for methamphetamine “phenomenally” increased, especially in a time when major economies where coordinating their efforts to combat opium drug trade. The rise of 1990s brought a sudden twist, the consumers of this drug was not just limited to migrants or labours anymore, it had entered the youth, especially a high demand from those youth participating in concerts and music shows. This not only gave a phenomenal boost to the “meth” trade but also initiated, what law enforcement officers call, “dark alley trade”, reaching to thousands of consumers undetected.

Opium was soon “out of market” particularly because of its ability to provide instant “sleepiness and lethargy”, making it vastly unpopular, especially among youths, whereas its alternative, heroine is often a product consumed by masses from low society; on the contrary, methamphetamines is a product consumed by all.

The income generated by its vast consumption and “unchecked” flourishing drug trade followed by the vast users particularly the youths, has further increased its global demands. This issue further becomes “complex” because of its vast “rich” consumers. Moreover, even today, in many communities, regional and rural masses continue to use methamphetamines as a “medicinal drug”.

Furthermore, “meth” is largely in demand because of its easier ingredients which further reduces the cost of production making it cheaper enough to be consumed by masses from the labour classes and those belonging to the low-income groups. This further pose a grave challenge to the law enforcement agencies, which in a bust, closes the case with “limited meth production” and small time “perpetrators” in custody, instead of following the trade routines, perpetrators higher up in the chain remains at large.

Furthermore, meth does not involve large fields, unlike opium, the entire “business” is consolidated and the trade is limited to certain areas in the beginning, often cloaked from the law enforcement agencies hiding in the plain sight or involving particular “corrupt” office bearers. Operations begins from small or medium scale laboratories, in rural locations, backyard of a house or a garage turned “meth” lobby mixing various chemical supplements, beginning from amphetamine, to other chemicals with properties to enhance energy.

Sometimes sealed in the packets of “cold tablet” labels or “cough” syrups, the ingredients are then combined with readily available compounds and acids such as the battery acid dry cleaning acids, floor cleaning and bathroom cleaning acids. Furthermore, law enforcement agencies must keep in mind that the methamphetamine can easily be produced “in-doors”, since, it is not a generic plant-based like opium, it is produced using traditional methods, hence searching “meth labs” using satellite-trajectory is completely out of relevance as most of the production is home grown, “hidden” behind “unchecked” flourishing methamphetamine trade which, out of all the efforts taken by relevant UN and international law enforcement agencies, continues to be unsolicited numbers.

Furthermore, law enforcement agencies heavily rely on drug busts, as the drug traffickers and transnational organized crime depend on small producers, their arrest does a major damage to their operation, on the contrary law enforcement officers tend to take the bust “lightly” which gives ample time for drug traffickers to expand their operation.

Policy makers should further note that, key ingredients to produce “meth” are ephedrine’s and pseudoephedrine’s, which are either extracted from medicinal tonics or syrups by agents of drug producers in a laboratory, or are bought directly in “raw” from those nations with low regulations on cross border trade on medicines. Although there are nations which tried to control the trade of essential medicines in the market, many countries, however, continue to ignore the importance of laws in medicinal trade, especially developing economies such as India, Laos, Myanmar and developed economies such as the member nations of EU.

Additionally, the concept of economic liberalism has further assisted “meth” producing agents, particularly in China, where ephedrine grows, many chemical companies too cooperate wilfully in producing “meth” using their well-equipped labs and necessary tools, in an effort to make profit and assist the trans-national organized crime factions, while repacking them in cough syrups and tablets for common cold.

Role of Trans-National Organized Crime

Transnational Organized crime, from “production to distribution”, plays a vital part in the drug trade, providing fire-arms to the drug traffickers, hiding them in “plain sight” in countries of their operation. It would not be wrong to say that, without their support, drug traffickers would annihilate in their own operation.

After active international agreements and resolutions citing active cooperation against traffickers, transnational organized crime have “limited” their operations. To begin with, nations such as Laos and Cambodia, triads have strictly ruled their operatives to operate individually, rather than groups in fear from being compromised by a recently turned mole or a cop playing trafficker. Policy makers should understand that, for trafficking groups their operations must run “smoothly”, hence, any hindrance in their operation would force them to retaliate “strongly”. Additionally, developing economies such as India and Myanmar, have been vital destination for smuggling key chemicals abroad, particularly the Middle East and East Asia.

Additionally, many law enforcement agencies have recorded an increase in participation of non-organized crime factions, largely low-income group individuals seeking to make big money followed by some private companies, allowing their resources to be used for a major cut. Particularly in Asia, there is no shortage of methamphetamine manufacturers. Private medical enterprises reinforce “drug traffickers” by providing key ingredients which, they transport “unchecked” to Mexico, and countries in Middle East, and Southwest Asia “cloaking” the ingredients in company labels. In recent years, Western Africa have become a major shipping point. Here drug lords use meth as currency to fund their wars. Methamphetamine is then trafficked to Middle East, which then reaches to the shores of South East Asia.

This “unchecked” trade not only questions the “alertness” of law enforcement agencies, but also opens the Pandora box of questions, beginning from how strong the trade routes are? to how many players are participating in the route? It further opens opportunities for cartels looking for regions to expand their trade. In an effort to establish a firm trading grounds, cartels choose South Asia particularly because of rigged medicinal trade regulations and inadequate law enforcement presence. This further increase corruption and severely compromises democratic governance, further complicating an already deteriorating situation, as the government agencies fails to apprehend the perpetrators, particularly in those areas which are “owned” by transnational organized crime factions or involve organized crime factions directly, or indirectly like slums.

Due to “chronic corruption”, the decision-making mechanism is severely compromised resulting in failures of law enforcement agencies to arrest the principal perpetrators but the ones least on the “food-chain”. This is particularly rampant in law enforcement agencies which are compromised as those principally responsible roam free while “small players” are easily apprehended.


Armed with an intensive ability to cripple the governance of multiple countries, it is important for policy makers to understand and acknowledge the concept of “regional and local cooperation’s” along with the establishment of international agencies particularly tasked to surgically remove this cancer. On the international front, United Nations has tasked the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime to operate globally along with regional and national partners in eliminating such acts of criminal activities in their vicinity. Policy makers should understand the importance of regional and local cooperation while putting their ego’s aside when interacting with international agencies as this issue does not limits itself to one nation, but spreads like cancer from one region to other.

With international organizations already leaning their “valuable support” to apprehend drug traffickers nationally accredited law enforcement agencies should ensure that, once apprehended, the region does not attract any more “factions”. Additionally, it is important to note that, tensions between countries remains high in South Asia, which too assists organized crime to operate without hindrance and checks, in the field of production to distribution.

It is important for policy makers to recalibrate their agenda and focus on fighting against the enemy which would use any possible approach to prevent hindrance in their operation. One possible solution is to create an inter-agency or intra-agency task force to coordinate and route these elements out of their locations in an effort to maintain rule of law, peace and security in the region.

Policy makers must cooperate with international agencies, veteran agencies of other countries and experienced officers of other law enforcement agencies, in an effort to reinforce their fight, recalibrating their agenda’s or re-structuring their policies, and invite all those nations facing similar issues on a uniform forum, in an effort to effectively and efficiently resolve their issues.

Policy makers must always be vigil, as the issue involves drug traffickers operates without the fear of law or prosecution, but also adopt or identify long term solutions, as the situations could be volatile and intense and region could be prone to attract another drug involving factions.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra & Richa Chadha

Anant Mishra is a former Youth Representative to the United Nations. He had previously served with the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly as well as the Economic and Social Council. His previous assignments were in Rwanda and Congo. He also serves as a visiting faculty for numerous universities and delivers lectures on conflict and foreign relations. Richa Chadha has been a journalist for over a decade, starting her carrier with The Pioneer and leading the ranks with some of the most important leadership positions in nationally reputed papers such as The Hindustan Times, she is credited for many important stories during her tenure at Hindustan Times. Armed with political in-depth understanding, she comes with a rich of experience of covering national and global issues.

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