Uppers Rock the World

By Will Godfrey 09/14/11

According to a new UN report, global use of cheap, synthetic uppers like meth and mephedrone has overtaken both heroin and cocaine, with Asia leading the way.

Asia is the biggest consumer of ATS drugs like meth.

A comprehensive report released yesterday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlights a global boom in amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS). This category of synthetic drugs includes methamphetamine and ecstasy, as well as less-regulated "analogue substances," such as mephedrone and the catchy-sounding methylenedioxpyrovalerone (MDPV)—which are sometimes sold as "bath salts" and "plant food" respectively. Meth use may be declining in the US, but the bigger picture shows ATS eclipsing heroin and cocaine to become the second most used category of drugs on the planet. While global seizures of heroin, cocaine and cannabis remained stable between 2005 and 2009, ATS seizures surged—although cannabis remains in first place. The 2011 Global ATS Assessment declares: "Once viewed as purely a cottage industry, ATS manufacture and trafficking has undergone its own industrial revolution." This revolution is switching the focus of drug production away from cocaine and heroin bastions like Colombia and Afghanistan. The Netherlands and Burma (Myanmar) are the two largest producers of synthetic drugs, while lab busts and seizures are rising in regions such as West Africa (particularly Nigeria), Europe, and different areas of Latin America.

Seizures of methamphetamine in South-East Asia are one indicator of the overall trend: 32 million pills were confiscated in 2008—but a staggering 133 million were taken in 2010. UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov described an industry that has moved from one "typified by small-scale manufacturing operations to more of a cocaine or heroin-type market." This means large criminal organizations now control the trade, attracted by the low cost and flexibility of manufacture, which isn't tied to particular locations like plant-based drug production. The attractions for ATS users include affordability, convenience, an association with a fast-paced modern lifestyle, and reduced social stigma compared with heroin or cocaine. But the perception that ATS drugs are not dangerous or addictive is wrong, said one of the report's co-authors, Justice Tettey: “There is this conception that they are not really hard drugs, but people can definitely get hooked on them.” And the increased popularity of injection as a means of taking ATS drugs—particularly evident in countries as diverse as New Zealand, Japan, Thailand and several Eastern European and Scandinavian states—is also hastening the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. Despite the global explosion of uppers, the majority of users are still found in the heavily-populated East Asian and South-East Asian regions.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.