The Straits Times (Singapore)
JUL 21 1997

Equipment control a way to curb synthetic drugs

By R. Senthilnathan

VIENNA -- More and more countries are tightening their controls on the import and export of precursors used to manufacture synthetic drugs, but they should also consider the use of a second, hitherto rarely used measure: the control of equipment used for their manufacture, a senior UN drug control official said.

Mr Howard Stead, a technical officer at the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) secretariat in Vienna, said increased monitoring on the sale, import and export of equipment such as large flasks is a second, effective, way in the fight against the illicit manufacture of synthetic drugs like amphetamine, methamphetamine and Ecstasy. Although the most preferred method is to control the precursors, the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Trafficking of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which foresees it through a list of precursors to be controlled, also has room for equipment control.

"I am very enthusiastic about it," said Mr Stead. The INCB is an independent body made up of experts in the drug field who monitor the various conventions related to drugs.

In the United States, there is legislation supporting control of both equipment and precursors, but there are no known cases of it being used for the former, he said. In Britain, on the other hand, an equipment-monitoring programme is being used.

While the purchase of test tubes cannot be monitored, purchases of certain lab equipment, such as large flasks, can raise suspicions, he added. In one case, authorities became suspicious about the purchase of an outboard motor and further investigations found out that it was being used by makers of illicit synthetic drugs to mix the chemicals in large drums. Anti-drug officials have been alarmed at the rapid increase in the abuse of synthetic drugs, two of the most common being amphetamines and methamphetamines. While the former is widely abused in Australia, methamphetamines are abused in East and South-east Asia. According to the United Nations Drug Control Programme's annual report on drugs, the quantity of synthetic drugs seized in 1993 was nine times more than that of 1978. Almost every country in the world, says the report, is affected by the rising abuse. The number of synthetic drug abusers worldwide is put by the UNDCP at 30 million, more than the number of cocaine and heroin abusers put together. Cannabis is the most abused drug, with an estimated 141 million addicts.

In some countries, artificial drugs are the major drugs of abuse: in Japan and South Korea, for instance, the number of synthetic drug abusers is seven times more than that of cocaine and heroin combined. In the Philippines it is 5.5 times. Drug officials say synthetic drugs can be made in small laboratories dubbed kitchen labs -- and thus are very difficult to detect and destroy. Therefore, there has been a great emphasis on controlling the precursors.

Ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine are two of the important precursors used for methampatamine and, according to the UNDCP, during 1990-94, global ephedrine seizures increased from 13 per cent of the total precursor seizure to 46 per cent.

Fortunately, says Mr Stead, there is more awareness about the increasing abuse of synthetic drugs, which has led to more controls. Five years after the 1988 convention went into force, there was a basic set of understanding about controls for precursors, he said. The success is becoming more apparent as more counties are applying these well.

The success is also demonstrated by the fact that users and traffickers of ephedrine are now searching for alternative sources. The Czech Republic used to be the major producer and source for illicit ephedrine, but three years ago, Prague put in tougher controls. The producers moved to India, where government controls and a voluntary code of conduct adopted by the industries closed the doors to the traffickers by 1995.

Then the main source of ephedrine became China, but that country, too, has been tightening its control. The INCB has so far not seen the emergence of a new source.

What we are seeing is traffickers having many problems over ephedrine, Mr Stead said. Besides, a number of countries, such as the Czech Republic, Hongkong, India and Singapore, also take the step of informing importer-countries of the export of precursors from their territory, and ask them whether they have any objections.

However, there is no total control over the illicit production, trafficking and use of precursors for synthetic drugs as yet, the UN drug agencies say.

This is indicated by the fact that, faced with increased restrictions, traffickers and manufacturers are turning towards alternative precursors, like phenylpropanolamine, which is used to produce methampatamine, but only gives amphetamine, Mr Stead said.

Ultimately, he said, the success could be measured by how difficult it is for traffickers to get the precursors and then to produce them.


The writer covers the activities of UN agencies and international bodies based in Vienna for The Straits Times.

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