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UN Says Southeast Asia May Soon Be Opium Free, But Amphetamine Production up

The United Nations, in its annual global drugs report, says Southeast Asia could be free of opium production in the next few years. But, despite drug crackdowns, the region still faces the challenge posed by amphetamines trafficking.

The 2005 U.N. drug report, released Wednesday, says opium production in Southeast Asia is now 78 percent lower than in 1996, with production expected to decline further this year.

John Doyle, a U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC official, says the pattern of eradication is continuing.

"Regarding opiates - really the overall story is a major decline in this region which continues - counterbalanced by a significant increase in Afghanistan," he said.

Last week UNODC officials predicted Laos would be opium free by early 2006, with just 1,800 hectares still being used for poppy plantation.

Burma and Thailand have also reported sustained declines in opium output in recent years.

But while opium production decreases, Mr. Doyle says Asia remains a center for the production and use of amphetamine-type stimulants.

"The world's largest market for amphetamines - notably methamphetamines - is East and Southeast Asia," he said. "The sub-region accounts for more than 60 percent of world amphetamine seizures in 2003."

The report does note a decline in amphetamine consumption, largely due to a decrease in the number of users in Thailand following a controversial official crackdown in 2003.

The crackdown led to the deaths of over 2,000 people, triggering an outcry from human rights groups, who accused the government of a policy of extra-judicial killings. The government has denied this, blaming the deaths on drug gang rivalries.

Chartchai Suthiklom, the deputy secretary-general of Thailand's Office of the Narcotics Control Board, says progress is being made, with seizures of methamphetamines known as "ya ba" falling to seven million tablets in the first six months of 2005, from a high of 100 million in 2001.

However, Mr. Chartchai admits Thailand faces fresh challenges in the production of the amphetamine known as "ice."

"The most serious problem on drugs in Thailand is the amphetamine type stimulants or ATS. We found the ecstasy or MMDA and methamphetamine is the most serious drug for our country," he said. "Ice is the new era of methamphetamine because the seizure in Thailand increased."

In the first six months of this year, some 100 kilograms of ice have been seized already, compared to 48 kilograms in 2004.

Drug syndicates have shifted production and distribution to Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines and Malaysia following crackdowns by Chinese authorities on methamphetamine factories in Yunnan province.

Now Thailand, China, India, Laos and Burma are working together to combat the trade in the chemicals needed to produce amphetamines.