The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released the 2014 World Drug Report on global drug trafficking Thursday to mark International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
Asia has faced increases in use and trafficking of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), the report says, aided by easy access to key precursor chemicals from regional economies. UNODC researchers also say the region is facing challenges from Internet trading in illegal drugs.
According to researchers, Asia has also witnessed a rapid rise in amphetamine-type stimulant production in recent years, and the region now accounts for up to 50 percent of the drug's global users.
Tun Nay Soe, UNODC program coordinator for East Asia, says methamphetamine use poses a major challenge to the region.
"Methamphetamine — this is the biggest issue," he said. "From 2008 it was showing the dramatic increase. In 2008 it was just only 32 or 33 million [pills], but in 2012 we have like over nearly 230 million. And even though the data is not completed yet ... we can project it is not going to be less than 2012."
A similar trend is evident with users of crystalline amphetamine, also known as "ice," which is up sharply from a decade ago in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Annual crystalline methamphetamine seizures in the region are at 11.6 metric tons.
Chemicals that are key to producing ATS-type drugs come from several regional countries, led by Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, China and India, where chemicals are diverted from legal to illegal trade.
The UNODC says around 243 million people aged between 15 and 64 — about five percent of the world's population — are said to have used illicit drugs in the past year. Each year about 200,000 people die of illicit drug use, with families left to bear the hardship.
Production of opium, the raw material for heroin, is led by Afghanistan, which in 2013 was saw a 36 percent increase in cultivation area to 154,000 hectares. The country currently produces an estimated 5,500 tons of opium, accounting for 80 percent of global production.
In Myanmar, also known as Burma, the world's second largest opium producer, the area under cultivation stands at around 57,800 hectares — largely concentrated in northern Shan state.
The UNODC's Tun Nay Soe says poverty is the driving force behind the Shan villagers' production.
"Most of these opium growing villages are in remote areas," he said. "For them to grow cash crops and sell [them] is really difficult because transportation infrastructure is not really good. But growing opium is totally different. They do not need to go out and sell this. The traffickers just knock on their door. As long as we are not able to address the poverty issues in Shan state I don't really think we will be able to end this opium cultivation in Myanmar."
The UNODC says heroin remains a major concern across several Asian countries including China, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The other threat, says Tun Nay Soe, is through production and trafficking of new psycho-active substances and Web-based trading. The drugs are often categorized outside existing laws and little is known about the extent of their impact on the community.
The virtual trading in illicit drugs on the Internet makes it difficult for authorities to identify website owners and users who are a part of the so-called "dark net," which authorities say may be worth billions of dollars.
U.N. officials say illegal trafficking in drugs is continuing to expand, often undermined by issues of inconsistent and corrupt law enforcement, and issues of justice and health.