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
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
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
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
Ultimately, he said, the success could be measured by how
difficult it is for traffickers to get the precursors and then to
The writer covers the activities of UN agencies and
international bodies based in Vienna for The Straits Times.
Copyright © 1997 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.