For years, the illicit fentanyl epidemic has swept through North America, causing a large number of deaths and casualties. Now, there are signs that it has reached the shores of Southeast Asia, presenting a clear and present danger to the regional authorities. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
The abuse of illicit fentanyl, a class of powerful synthetic opioid, is an emerging threat in Southeast Asia as there are indications of mass production in Myanmar’s Shan State for distribution to the wider region.
Southeast Asia, in particular the Golden Triangle, has in recent years experienced a massive expansion of the illicit synthetic drug trade as the cartels turn their attention away from plant-based drugs like opium and heroin. While there were only three synthetic opioids identified in the illicit drug supply of East and Southeast Asia in 2014, the number increased to 28 in 2019.
Jeremy Douglas, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said: “Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and even more potent variations deserve much more attention than they receive in the region.
“Production is known to migrate into places with deep governance problems like the Golden Triangle, and we are concerned Southeast Asia could become a source for other parts of the world while these substances get mixed into or displace part of the regional heroin supply.”
In May 2020, Myanmar police announced that during a drug operation from February to April, they have seized, near Loikan village in Shan State in northeast Myanmar, a record-breaking haul of 3,700 liters of methylfentanyl, a fentanyl analog which is most likely used to manufacture illicit fentanyl powder and tablets. This haul is part of a bigger seizure that included other drugs, precursor chemicals and drug-making equipment.
This fentanyl bust is a harbinger of an approaching crisis that will bring death and crimes which can potentially reach into every fabric of society. This is the first time such mass fentanyl production has been found in Myanmar. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and 100 times more powerful than morphine. It is fatal in a dose of as little as two milligrams, equivalent to just a few grains of sand.
In North America alone, illicit fentanyl has caused hundreds of thousand overdose deaths. On average, 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
And now with this bust, it can be postulated that Asian drug cartels have moved into the lucrative synthetic opioid market with the capacity to manufacture fentanyl locally in Southeast Asia, which will probably be distributed inside Myanmar and around the region.
However, it is also possible that part of the supply is meant for the wider Asia Pacific region, riding on the well-established methamphetamine trafficking routes to reach East Asia, South Asia, and even further afield to Australia and New Zealand.
These drug cartels, already active in the Golden Triangle with their regional supply chains, connections and existing labs, can with relative ease produce and supply fentanyl alongside other synthetic drugs.