Asia's methamphetamine cartels from China to Myanmar are using creative chemistry to outfox police, experts say

Paperwork showed it was filled with 72-ton blue tanks filled with propionyl chloride, a relatively dark chemical, destined for an area in northern Myanmar notorious for producing synthetic drugs on an industrial scale.

The cargo was procured from a broker in an area controlled by the United Wa State Army, a militia that has been accused for years of self-financing through drug sales.

There was also no apparent attempt to hide the cargo through the corrugated cardboard Shipping containers had taken an unusual route thousands of miles across Asia rather than overland across China.

The propionyl chloride left China’s coastal province of Jiangsu north of Shanghai on a ship to the Thai port city of Laem Chabang near Bangkok. From there, the chemicals were transported north by land until they reached the Lao district of Huay Xai, directly across the Mekong from Thailand.

The Lao authorities decided to go to Jeremy Douglas for advice. Douglas is the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), serving to assist governments across East Asia and the Pacific in combating cross-border criminal activity. In the lower Mekong, this often means drug trafficking.

Douglas was amazed. He urged the Laotians to seize the chemicals because he knew that propionyl chloride could be used to make fentanyl, a potent and dangerous synthetic opioid that has devastated the United States in recent years, and ephedrine, a key component of methamphetamine, to manufacture. Propionyl chloride is not on the INCB list because it has many legitimate uses, such as making agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals. However, the INCB recommends that nations subject them to “special surveillance”.

The news of the seizure was kept secret until April this year, when Douglas and the Thai authorities unveiled it at a virtual drug conference organized by the United Nations Global Drug Commission.

Laos authorities had come across a smoking gun, important evidence likely explaining how the royal needles behind Asia’s multi-billion dollar synthetic drug industry had outsmarted Mekong security forces. They used an elaborate chemical technique that used various unregulated chemicals to make synthetic narcotics.

“They are very creative people,” Douglas told the UN conference.

“Basically, they are innovators. They are problem-solvers.”

The theory of work

According to preliminary UNODC data, authorities seized a record 175 tons of meth in 2020 in East Asia and Southeast Asia, a new record despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Drug prices continued to decline, meaning these large busts did not materially affect the overall supply of medicines in the region.

However, the bouts of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenyl-2-propanone (P2P) – the most common chemicals used to make meth – have basically dried up. According to Douglas, the authorities confiscated only 600 kilograms of ephedrine and 10 million tablets of pseudoephedrine, a “tiny amount” compared to the methane levels determined by the authorities.

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That left experts with a puzzling question: How was the meth made?

If illegal drugs were seized in record numbers, authorities would have had to find a higher volume of the chemicals to manufacture them.

Experts theorized that cartels imported chemicals like propionyl chloride and employed world-class chemists to make their own ingredients for making meth – like buying the flour to make a pie crust instead of just buying a pre-made one.

The law enforcement community often calls these chemicals “precursors” or “unintended precursors”. They are made and sold legally, but at some point in the supply chain they are diverted for illegal use.

Some precursors, such as propionyl chloride, have legitimate chemical uses in addition to illicit drug manufacturing. Other so-called “designer precursors” are being synthesized so that they are chemically distinct enough to avoid government oversight but have no known purpose other than the manufacture of narcotics.

Trying to regulate these chemicals is often like a slap in the mouth. By the time one government goes through the bureaucratic or legal process to regulate one, another new one has appeared.

Despite the seemingly endless flow of newly developed precursors, converting precursors into ingredients for synthetic drugs is a technically complex process that involves expert chemistry.

Douglas said his office knew various precursors were being confiscated across the Mekong, but the staggering amount of propionyl chloride confiscated in Laos almost confirmed their suspicions that illegal drug manufacturers were using the process.

“In a way, the seizure confirmed what we and others had suspected in recent years: that precursors play an important role in regional drug trafficking,” said Douglas.

“Organized crime works effectively to control traditional forerunners.”

To combat drug and precursor trafficking across common borders, Thailand, China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam launched a joint information exchange initiative called Golden Triangle Operation 1511 in late 2019.

The five countries hoped to “step up cooperation” to close the human trafficking hotspots in the greater Mekong region.

From December 2019 to December 2020, agents arrested more than 16,000 people and confiscated nearly 450 million meth pills, 34 kilograms of crystal meth and more than 1 million kilograms of precursor chemicals, the Thai authorities told the UN body.

The authorities in the region see this as a success so far, although the operation has been partially derailed by the pandemic.

“According to our statistics, Operation 1511 was able to confiscate a lot,” said Paisit Sangkahapong, deputy secretary general of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) Thailand office.

“However, there are some other precursor chemicals that are entering the Golden Triangle area through our checkpoints. We need to work on that,” Paisit said.

Precursors are a global problem. Cornelis de Joncheere, President of the INCB, described the increasing use of precursors as “a critical challenge to the international drug control system” on the United Nations-sponsored panel.

These problems are more acute in Asia because the illegal drug production centers operate in the Golden Triangle Alongside two of the world’s largest chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers, China and India, which provide direct access to legal chemicals that can be used for illegal purposes.

“The symbiotic relationship between the chemical and synthetic drug businesses here in Asia is undeniable,” said Douglas.

“The rise in meth has brought an increase in chemicals.”