South Asian Cartels Make Millions Off Crystal Meth

ISLAMABAD — Iran, Pakistan and other South Asian countries are a fast-rising force in the global methamphetamine market, with drug cartels thriving off the weak governance and law enforcement that have long fueled the region’s heroin trade.

This environment has allowed criminals to tap into the countries’ relatively advanced pharmaceutical industries to get their hands on meth’s two main ingredients: ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The drug is more valuable than heroin, and some say, more addictive.

Highlighting this scourge are U.N. figures showing that the number of meth labs uncovered in Iran rose from two to 166 in three years, while the supply of precursor chemicals in Pakistan has more than tripled over roughly the same period.

A Supreme Court case in Pakistan involving the prime minister’s son has drawn more attention to the problem. The case revolves around two Pakistani pharmaceutical companies that allegedly used political connections to obtain huge amounts of ephedrine and are suspected of diverting it to people in the drug trade who could have used it to make meth worth billions of dollars. The companies have denied any wrongdoing.

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are used to make common cold medicine, but either can also be used to manufacture meth easily at home or, in places like Mexico where the trade is most advanced, in huge labs indistinguishable from those of large pharmaceutical companies.

The greater South Asia region has a long history of drug manufacturing, but most of it has involved opium and heroin made from the vast quantities of poppy grown in Afghanistan and smuggled out through Pakistan and Iran.

As governments elsewhere clamp down on the availability of the precursor chemicals, this region is attracting more dealers, said Matt Nice of the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board, which enforces U.N. conventions regulating the manufacture and distribution of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

They look for a country with weak security and regulation “where you can obtain the chemicals because no one is paying attention, or it has never been a problem before,” he said.

Iranian police dismantled 166 meth labs in 2010, up from just two in 2008, according to the U.N. Labs have also been dismantled in Sri Lanka and India, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of precursor chemicals.

Worldwide, nearly 10,200 meth labs were seized in 2009, the most recent aggregate data available, according to the U.N. Most were small labs dismantled in the U.S. But the number of labs outside the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years.

Much of the meth produced in Iran is smuggled to East and Southeast Asia, which have some of the highest street prices and are facing an epidemic of addiction.

“Over the past five years, Iran went from a non-issue in the global synthetic drug trade to top 10 in the world in terms of seizures,” said Jeremy Douglas, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Pakistan. “They are also arresting Iranian meth couriers and traffickers throughout East Asia.”

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