10/23/19 Gilberto Gerra

Century of Lies
Gilberto Gerra

This week on Century of Lies we hear about the growing concern over new psychoactive substances and amphetamine-type stimulants with audio from Martin Raithelhuber, PhD, and Gilberto Gerra, MD, both from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Audio file



OCTOBER 23, 2019

DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of www.DrugPolicyFacts.org.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs held a set of intersessional thematic meetings October 16 through 18 at the UN’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. For the first time ever, the meetings were webcast via YouTube, through the account of the secretariat of the governing bodies of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Loyal listeners know that I am a longtime critic of the CND and UNODC for their lack of transparency. Webcasting via YouTube was a major advance. Kind of.

The videos are unlisted. They don’t appear in YouTube search results or on google search, they’re not on the Secretariat’s account page. Neither UNODC nor the CND have posted links to them. You have to have the link in order to view the video. So if you go to my Facebook page, which is www.facebook.com/douglasalanmcvay, you will find the links for all three days. As of the time of this recording the videos are still online.

Each day’s video starts with the opening of the morning session and continues until the afternoon session ends, which means they’re each a little over eight hours long including the two hour lunch break in the middle. The International Drug Policy Consortium has a blog with a very good summary of every CND meeting at CNDBlog.org that you can use as a guide to each day’s session in order to find presentations from any particular agency or country in which you may be interested.

On this week’s show we’re going to hear a little of the audio from this recent set of intersessional meetings. First, we’re going to hear about a growing concern: new psychoactive substances and amphetamine type stimulants.

Martin Raithelhuber, PhD, is an Illicit Synthetic Drugs Expert with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Laboratory and Scientific Section. He manages the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analysis, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme, which supports countries to generate, analyze, report and use information on illicit synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances (NPS). The SMART Programme also runs the UNODC Early Warning Advisory on NPS, a web-based information platform on NPS emergence. Here is Dr. Raithelhuber:

DR. RAITHELHUBER: The topic of my presentation is the ATS market ten years after the 2009 Plan of Action. More synthetic drugs of higher purity and for less money – is that possible? Is it happening? What is going on with the synthetic drug market? Long before the emergence of new psychoactive substances – we heard about them earlier today – new forms of information technology such as the internet contributed to a rapid spread of knowledge on precursors and manufacturing techniques of amphetamine type stimulants and they are more and more globalized in an interconnected world.

Countries which use to measure methamphetamine seizures in kilograms are now measuring them in tons. The capacity of clandestine laboratories for synthetic drugs increased and forensic laboratories in some countries are reporting a purity of methamphetamine that is so high that it can no longer detect the traces in impurities and samples which can be used for profiling for example and our colleague from DMCCDA reported earlier that the MDMA dose in an Ecstasy tablet is higher than ever and doubled in recent years. So synthetic drugs are a game changer they can be manufactured anywhere in the world and they are manufactured practically in the world. Their manufacture is relatively simple and can be done in a small scale and a large scale industrial scale. Traffickers can choose between a wide range of precursors and synthesis roots.

So already in 1998 – so that is 20 years ago – the general assembly realized that synthetic drugs posed specific set of challenges at that time mainly amphetamine type stimulants. They were indeed a game changer in a world long dominated by plant based drugs like cannabis, heroin, and cocaine. Ten years later in 2009, the absence of a global monitoring mechanism for synthetic drugs made it difficult to understand that new situation and the complexity and dynamics of the growing political market for synthetic drugs. As a consequence member (UNINTELLIGIBLE) resolve to take measures to advance the monitoring of illicit synthetic drugs in the framework of the political declaration and Plan of Action of 2009.

A global monitoring mechanism was set up around the same time by UNODC, the UNODC Global Smart Programme which I have the pleasure to manage. The program has since contributed significantly to improve the quantity and quality of information on the illicit synthetic drug market. Several elements of that 2009 Plan of Action were then later included in 2016 in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) document particularly the operation recommended recommendations to improve the detection and identification capacity. Mexico earlier today mentioned the importance of forensic laboratories and early warning systems to detect new and emerging trends.

Now let’s look at the market development ten years ago. In 2008, the quantity of amphetamine type seizures was just at 60 tons. Since then it has increased four times to 2,061 tons in 2017. The seizure amount of all the main amphetamine type stimulants: methamphetamine, amphetamine, and ecstasy have increased – all three, strongly. The expansion is mainly driven as you see in the graph by one drug and that is methamphetamine. Let’s take a closer look at methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine is clearly becoming the primary amphetamine type stimulant of concern. Quantities of that drug have increased more than 7 times. I really took a great effort with the help of the 1980’s pocket calculator to make sure that the size of the circles is approximately displaying a 7-fold increase. Recent data we heard from my colleague in Bangkok and Southeast Asia indicates a further increase of methamphetamine seizures in 2018 and 2019 as well as far as we know. This increase affects the known or the main traditional regions Asia and the Americas, but also other regions like Europe, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and Africa.

Among methamphetamine one particular form of methamphetamine known as “Ice” or “Chrystal Meth”, Crystalline Methamphetamine is particularly increasing and this is the form of methamphetamine which is associated with a particularly high health risk for users.

So are these growing seizure amounts a reflection of more effective law enforcement activities. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this morning already raised that question. So did all the efforts of countries maybe in collaboration with the many UNODC programs we have today have an effect on the market? Are they working? Are all of these efforts making a larger dent in to the illicit drug market? We hope so and I think so, however, at the same time we notice that the prices for methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs are actually falling. Without doubt growing amounts of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs are taken off the market by law enforcement. But assuming a stable demand this should lead to price increases or a lower purity as traffickers try to compensate for these losses and charge higher risk premiums. Instead prices for example for methamphetamine pills – so called “Yaba” pills in Southeast Asia are decreasing while the purity remains stable. In Thailand in 2008, Yaba pills were sold for $6-$10 apiece. Now they can be bought for as little as $3 – half the price. In North America prices of Chrystal Meth decreased significantly while the purity at the same time increased – which is counterintuitive actually. A pure gram of Chrystal Meth in the U.S. cost $220 in 2008, you can get the same amounts and purity now for just $70 – one-third. In Europe Ecstasy tablets with a much higher MDMA content as we heard earlier today and users can buy these much stronger tablets for practically the same Euro amount and the price of such a high dose Ecstasy tablet is within pocket money range of a teenager and cheaper than a drink for users.

So there is a dynamic and growing market for synthetic drugs and countries are beginning to feel the impact with increasing demand for treatment for example, and a large number of fatalities associated to the use of synthetic drugs. So there is more and higher purity methamphetamine, amphetamine, and ecstasy available in a large number of countries and for less money than before.

The global mechanism for monitoring synthetic drugs at the Global SMART Programme has been able to reveal and communicate this development. So while information gaps still exist, it is also true that there has never been a more complete and up-to-date information available on the synthetic drug market. So how can member states, how can we here at UNODC, the international community and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) make better use of this information to develop responses and what could such responses look like? We are still at the beginning of this discussion yet there are maybe some lessons learned, particularly from the emergence of NPS (New Psychoactive Substances) when the international took fast and effective action capacity building. Awareness raising and capacity building has improved the availability of information on synthetic drug trends and the ability of law enforcement in many countries to detect and identify drug shipments. So there is no doubt that member states are able to identify many, many more new psychoactive substances for example than just a few years ago and UNODC has played a role here but I really want to highlight the tremendous efforts many member states have undertaken to increase the capacity of their forensic laboratories in law enforcement to be able to detect and identify these substances.

International collaboration has been key for this success – to exchange knowledge, methods, good practices, bilateral/multilateral/lateral cooperation, interagency collaboration between UN agencies led to concrete results such as the UN Toolkit on Synthetic Drugs. You are going to hear more about it in the coming days. We will hear many more examples of collaboration for example, between UNODC and the World Health Organization, and INBC and other partners.

Early warning systems at the national, regional, international level were a decisive element to make available information on emerging trends early on to take action. In this context I would like to emphasize the critical importance of forensic labs/scientific laboratories. It was mentioned early today and it was already mentioned in the 2009 Action Plan and I know there are persons in the room, colleagues, counterparts from member states who have personally contributed to make available information on new psychoactive substances for example to the UNODC Early Warning Advisory. Information on the chemical nature of these substances, information on their pharmacology, on their toxicity and this information available – is being used by member states. It has informed legislation, for example – generic legislation in a number of countries and just to give you a concrete example because it is a recent example – I think Argentina was one of the most recent countries to introduce generic legislation on a group of new psychoactive substances and a counterpart informed me that the UNODC Early Warning Advisory – our information system – was important and informed the decision and it led them to information available from other member states like the United Kingdom for example, which had already experiences with such generic definitions of new psychoactive substances. So this information exchange is working yet we know from our interaction with many countries that knowledge and the capacity available to formulate responses to synthetic drugs and their precursors particularly at the field level is far from satisfactory. Field identification tools need to be modernized and made available much more widely. Information needs to be collected and shared more quickly and with a wider range of stakeholders including both law enforcement and health actors – state and private sector, and non-governmental organizations.

I would like to highlight one publication, which we issued just yesterday, The Global SMART Update, which has much more detailed information on what I have been presenting here in a very, very condensed form. You can take your copy outside at the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Strategy Booth.

Let me conclude by saying that we are looking forward to continuing this discussion with you. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today. Thank you.

That was Martin Raithelhuber, PhD, he’s an Illicit Synthetic Drugs Expert with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Laboratory and Scientific Section. He manages the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analysis, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme, which supports countries to generate, analyze, report and use information on illicit synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances (NPS).

You’re listening to Century of Lies. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Next we’re going to hear from Gilberto Guerra, MD. Doctor Guerra is Chief of the Drug Prevention and Health Branch at the UNODC.


That was Doctor Gilberto Guerra, he’s chief of the drug prevention and health branch at the UNODC. He was speaking before the Commission on Narcotic Drugs at their recent set of thematic intersessional meetings in mid-October at the UN’s offices in Vienna, Austria.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs will hold its 63rd annual session sometime in early March 2020. The dates have not yet been set. CND meets in mid-December of this year for a reconvened 62nd session. More information is available in the CND section of the UNODC website, which is UNODC.org.

And that's it for this week. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I've been your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.