The Struggle to Ban Precursor Chemicals

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Efforts to crack down on precursor chemicals, used to produce drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, seems to create a “balloon effect,” pushing drug production into countries with laxer restrictions.

So-called “precursors” are chemicals that are used to produce illegal drugs. For cocaine and heroin, chemicals like acetone, sulfuric acid and potassium permanganate are used to process coca leaves and poppy plants. Synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, on the other hand, are produced purely through reactions between chemicals.

Most precursor chemicals also have various legitimate uses in the manufacture of plastics, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and perfumes, amongst other things. This means that it is difficult to regulate these chemicals and stop them being acquired by drug producers.

In recent years, efforts to control precursors have increased in many countries in the Americas. The United States enacted the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA) in 2006, in an attempt to regulate sales of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine, which are used to produce the drug. The legislation has proved effective, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2010 World Drug Report noting a significant reduction in the production of methamphetamine within the United States since the enactment of the law.

This effective legislation from the United States has pushed methamphetamine production southwards to Mexico, where it seems to be flourishing. The 2010 World Drug Report says that since 2005, the number, size and sophistication of meth labs in Mexico have increased dramatically. Indeed, in August 2009, Mexican authorities dismantled the largest industrial–scale meth lab ever discovered in the country, encompassing a building complex spread over 240 hectares.

The 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, published by the U.S. Department of State, found that the production of methamphetamine in clandestine labs appears to have increased significantly in the country.

Mexican authorities responded to the increase in meth production within their borders with tougher controls on precursor chemicals. In January 2008 the import of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, which are commonly brought in from China and India, were banned outright in Mexico. Authorities are working to clamp down on illegal labs and there have been a series of major precursor chemical seizures in recent months. In May, security forces seized more than 54 tons of precursor chemicals, destined for use in the production of methamphetamine. This follows the seizure of 38 tons of chemicals in April.

Colombia has also been cracking down on these chemicals, and now has some of the strictest regulations in the world regarding the quantity of precursor chemicals that firms are allowed to purchase and sell. In some southern Colombian jungle towns there are tight restrictions on the amount of gasoline and kerosene available to a single customer, and even limitations on the purchase of baking soda; all products which are also used in the cocaine manufacturing process.

Colombian traffickers are, however, adapting to these restrictions. Drug officials have warned that Colombian traffickers may be producing coca base, an intermediate stage in the process, in Colombia, then sending it to countries with little control over precursor chemicals for the next stage in the production process. One example could be Honduras, which found its first major cocaine production facility in March. Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said the find was “a red flag that Honduras is turning into a processing center,” and said that Honduras’ controls over these chemicals are generally not enforced.

As InSight pointed out at the time, the Honduras lab could be a sign that cocaine processing is shifting north into Central America, where there are many countries with relatively weak government and law enforcement.

Even when precursors are effectively controlled, gangs can often substitute one chemical for another with similar properties. As the UN’s 2010 World Drug report pointed out, “there are indications that the traffickers are adapting yet again, identifying new sources of precursors, new techniques for synthesizing the drug, and new countries in which to locate manufacturing.”

Efforts to control precursor chemicals seem to produce a “balloon effect,” in which, as one country tightens its rules, production shifts into a place with laxer regulations. This kind of effect has been noted with coca production, which, in recent years, has risen in Peru and Bolivia as it dropped due to security advances in Colombia. With 57 governments across the globe reporting seizures of precursor chemicals to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) last year, it is clear that international co-operation and a unified global strategy will be necessary to clamp down on the illegal use of these chemicals.

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