Asia's meth trade is worth an estimated $61B as region becomes 'playground' for drug gangs

A police officer from Thailand's Narcotics Control Board stands guard in front of bags of methamphetamine pills in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok.

(CNN)Deep in the jungle in Thailand's northern Chiang Mai province, a unit of armed border officers were on duty late last month when they stumbled on a cave stuffed with drugs.

The stash was huge. Inside were more than 5 million methamphetamine pills -- known locally as yaba or "madness drug" -- and 145 kilograms (about 320 pounds) of crystal methamphetamine wrapped in large plastic bags.
Even by conservative estimates, the haul was worth tens of millions of dollars, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It was the biggest stash Police Lt. Col. Dilok Arinpeng, who commands the unit, said he had ever seen -- and, incredibly, he found it unguarded.
    But these types of record-breaking busts have become the new normal in Southeast Asia, which is facing one of the world's most intense drug crises.
    A UNODC report published Thursday found the methamphetamine trade is now worth between $30 billion and $61 billion per year in East and Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh.
    That's up from $15 billion a year in 2010, the last time the UNODC estimated the value of the meth trade in the region.
    Meth is being sold at rock-bottom prices, seizures appear to be doing little to dent the operations of drug traffickers, and crystal meth from the region is feeding demand as far away as New Zealand.
    Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the UNODC's Southeast Asia and Pacific operations, called on governments globally to "get their heads around the scale and significance" of the problem.
    If they don't, he warned, the situation will only worsen.
    "The region is being used and abused by organized crime to do business," Douglas said. "It is no stretch to say parts of it have become their playground."
    Armed Thai navy personnel  in a boat during a patrol along the Mekong river bordering Thailand and Laos on May 23.

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