Asia's multibillion dollar methamphetamine cartels are using creative chemistry to outfox police, experts say

Updated 0555 GMT (1355 HKT) May 4, 2021

(CNN)The shipping container raised suspicions as soon as it arrived in remote northwestern Laos last July.

Paperwork showed it was packed with 72 tons worth of blue vats filled with propionyl chloride, a relatively obscure chemical, and bound for an area in northern Myanmar notorious for the industrial-scale manufacturing of synthetic drugs.
The cargo had been procured by a broker based in territory controlled by the United Wa State Army, a militia that for years has been accused of funding itself through drug sales.
But local authorities had not heard of propionyl chloride. It is not one of the 30 precursor chemicals scheduled by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) for use in manufacturing illicit narcotics or psychotropic substances.
Nor had there been any apparent attempt to conceal the cargo though the corrugated shipping container had taken an unusual route thousands of miles around Asia, rather than overland through China.
The propionyl chloride departed China's coastal province of Jiangsu, north of Shanghai, on a ship bound for 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, just across the Mekong River from Thailand.
Laotian authorities decided to call Jeremy Douglas for advice. Douglas is the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and it's his job to help governments throughout East Asia and the Pacific combat transnational criminal activity. In the lower Mekong, that often means drug trafficking.
The shipping container held 72 tons of propionyl chloride when it was seized in Laos.
Douglas was astonished. He urged the Laotians to seize the chemicals because he knew propionyl chloride can be used to make fentanyl, a powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid that's ravaged the United States in recent years, and ephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine. Propionyl chloride is not on the INCB list because it has plenty of legitimate uses, such as the production of agricultural chemicals and pharmaceuticals. However, the INCB recommends nations subject it to "special surveillance."
News of the seizure was kept under wraps until April this year, when Douglas and Thai authorities presented it at a virtual drug conference organized by the United Nations Global Drug Commission.