Asian countries are dealing with an explosion of amphetamine-type drug abuse.

Asia has become the world's fastest growing market for amphetamine-type stimulants or ATS, also known as "fun drugs."

The United Nations recently issued its first global assessment on amphetamine-type drugs showing a ten-fold increase in seizures of ATS over the past decade to 40 tons in 2001. The report warned that the drug's popularity is spreading at an alarming rate. More than 40 million people used the drugs last year, mostly in East and Southeast Asia, followed by Europe, Australia and the United States.

Dr. John Howard, a director of clinical services at a Sydney drug rehabilitation center, says ATS is a big problem for Asia.

"ATS is now the major drug of concern in Thailand [and] its becoming the drug of concern for a major part of Laos, it's becoming a drug of concern in Vietnam and it's certainly a drug of concern in Yunnan province in China," he said.

For crime syndicates, the United Nations estimates ATS trafficking brings in up to $65 billion a year, with profit margins of up to 4,000 percent.

Thailand's Golden Triangle, where it shares borders with Burma and Laos, is the epicenter of ATS trafficking. The area has long been known for production of opiates, especially heroin.

Now hundreds of millions of ATS pills flood into Thailand from factories in eastern provinces of Burma.

A U.S. narcotics law enforcement official in Bangkok, Douglas Rasmussen, says the rise in ATS trafficking has prompted governments to enact tougher laws and build more prisons, including some for young offenders. "Unfortunately one of those [responses] is building more prisons and more juvenile facilities to house those people who have been identified as offenders," he said.

Countries including China, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand all have death penalty statutes for users and traffickers of both ATS and narcotics.

But the U.N.'s Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific says tough laws are not solving the problem.

Dr. Howard in Australia agrees, saying legal responses seldom curb drug abuse. "Of course we know from everywhere that never works," he said. "And so the region is awash with this problem of the drugs."

In Thailand, prison populations have exploded in part because of harsher drug laws. Fifteen prisons with the capacity to hold 90,000 inmates now hold 170,000, more than half of whom are there on drug offenses.

ATS drugs are moving north from Thailand and Burma to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, with much of it also destined for the booming coastal regions around Shanghai.

China's has seen a dramatic increase in the number of registered drug users, despite some of the world's toughest penalties for drug related offenses.

Yang Fang, a psychiatrist at the Yunnan Institute for Drug Abuse, says ATS use by young people is becoming a bigger problem. "Some youth began to try ATS in disco hall and some bars," she said.

China's detoxification programs have seen some success, but relapse is common because the programs lack follow-on support such as counseling and vocational guidance. Ms. Fang says Yunnan authorities are trying to change that by offering drug prevention programs in schools and communities.

Several other Asian countries are now considering alternatives to jail sentences. They are experimenting with harm reduction programs that contain the damage done by drug abuse, and community support programs, such as education and vocational training.