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Published: Thursday November 26, 2009 MYT 9:31:00 PM

UN agency warns of amphetamine threat in Asia

BANGKOK (AP) - United Nations drug experts warned Thursday that Asia is facing a rising threat from illegal amphetamine-type drugs, even as the problem from plant-derived drugs such as heroin and cocaine has eased.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime backed up the warning with data in a new report tracking production and use of amphetamine-type stimulants - ATS - in East and Southeast Asia.

"We are seeing an increase (of ATS usage) in our region," Gary Lewis, representative for East Asia and the Pacific for the U.N. agency, said at a news conference. He noted that more people use ATS than heroin and cocaine combined.

He said the drug was used by workers because of its stimulant effect, not just for recreational purposes.

"It heightens awareness, it heightens ability to focus, to stay awake for longer in a region ... where there is a great emphasis on economic development and intense competition at an economic level," said Lewis.

Seizures of methamphetamine and crystalline methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia increased in 2008 over the previous year, and the number of people seeking treatment for amphetamine abuse doubled from 26,000 to 50,000 from 2004 to 2008 in the 15 countries surveyed for the report.

"So on all these fronts we're seeing indicators going in the wrong way," said Lewis. In contrast, cultivation of opium, from which heroin is derived, has dropped sharply over the past decade.

Thailand is the largest market for methamphetamine pills in the region, said explained Deepika Naruka, regional coordinator for the U.N. agency's programs to track synthetic drugs worldwide.

With Thai demand increasing, neighboring countries may be affected by developments such as increased trafficking and more clandestine laboratories operations being established in border areas of Laos and Cambodia.

The increasing affluence of Vietnam makes it vulnerable to becoming a new market for methamphetamine, since it is already near production areas and trafficking routes as drug dealers seek to diversify their customers.

Another factor that could contribute to the spread of ATS drugs is the tightening of central government control in Myanmar ahead of elections planned for next year. The country's border areas, controlled by ethnic minority groups, are a major source of methamphetamine pills, especially for neighboring Thailand.

"The changing political situation in Myanmar in 2009 might serve as a push factor for illicit drugs and relocation of clandestine manufacturing sites across its borders," the U.N. agency said.

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