Mekong countries ramp up cooperation as drug market in East, Southeast Asia grows

Organised crime groups are increasingly linking land-based trafficking corridors and maritime routes to escalate maritime trafficking of high-volume shipments, as per the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report.


Co-chairs lead the Senior Officials Committee Meeting of Signatories to the MOU on Drug Control in the Greater Mekong Sub-region in Vientiane, Laos, last May 29, 2024. PHOTO: VIENTIANE TIMES

May 31, 2024

VIENTIANE – Law enforcers from six Mekong countries met in Vientiane on Tuesday, stepping up joint efforts to combat drug trafficking as synthetic drug markets in East and Southeast Asia continue to grow with methamphetamine seizures hitting a record high.

Attended by representatives from Laos, Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the meeting took place as the UN agency launched a report indicating the escalation in drug trafficking.

The report, titled “Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: latest developments and challenges 2024” was presented at the meeting.

It said the synthetic drug market in the region continues to grow at ‘concerning levels’.

The report stated that 190 tonnes of methamphetamine was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2023 – a record level in the region, despite dropping slightly in 2022.

“The drug trafficking and production situation has become increasingly complex,” UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Mr Masood Karimipour, said.

Organised crime groups, he added, are lowering production costs and scaling up production by using non-controlled chemicals. With scaled-up production, shipments involving over one tonne of drugs have become more frequent, which in turn leads to further price drops as availability and affordability increase.

Laos’ Deputy Minister of Public Security Major Khamking Phuilamanivong told the meeting that such regular gatherings have been an important platform for enhancing the collective effort to fight the illegal drug trade in the Mekong Sub-region.

Meetings have been held regularly since the countries signed a cooperation MOU in 1993.

Despite the reported escalation in the drug trade, the deputy minister said “These cooperation efforts have enabled us to effectively deal with and solve the drug problem in the region.”

Tuesday’s meeting reviewed the implementation of the Sub-regional Action Plan and the initiative on joint efforts to tackle synthetic drugs in the Mekong sub-region.

The UNODC report suggested that organised crime groups are increasingly linking land-based trafficking corridors and maritime routes to escalate maritime trafficking of high-volume shipments.

These include the route to the Gulf of Thailand, which crosses several land borders in the lower Mekong region. Throughout 2023 and into early 2024, large shipments of over one tonne of methamphetamine, often alongside ketamine, have been seized en route to or on maritime routes.

The report pointed out that Shan State in Myanmar continues to be the predominant source of synthetic drugs in the region, but the illicit manufacture of synthetic drugs is expanding to neighbouring countries.

It also highlights the sophistication of organised crime groups operating in the region, which are increasingly using a variation of non-controlled chemicals to expand production while minimising disruptions to their supply chain.

At the same time, new synthetic drug products have emerged in the market to appeal to young users. “Happy water” in sachet form emerged a few years ago and can now be found in multiple countries in the region. More recently, another synthetic drug product has entered the market, called “party lollipops”.

These lollipops have been found to contain multiple substances, such as ketamine, MDMA, and benzodiazepines, which can pose irreparable harm to users. Some are even packaged in well-known product brands, increasing the danger to the public, according to the report.

For its part, the Lao government has intensified action to tackle the drug problem and remains committed to working with other countries in the region in this regard, Major Khamking said.

Laos is also rolling out a wide-reaching national agenda that has instigated a crackdown on the burgeoning drug problem.

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