Canadians may think of illegal drug trafficking as a problem to pin on foreigners, but in the global trade in synthetic drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamines, Canada is one of the bad guys.
The United Nations' World Drug Report for 2011 was released Thursday, and Canada does not come off well - which is no surprise to those working in drug enforcement.
"If you look at the size and magnitude of these illicit drug labs, we just don't have the population and consumer base for this," said Sergeant Brent Hill, commander of the RCMP's chemical diversion unit in Milton, Ont. "This is for export and we know this. Do you really want to be a leading source country of illegal drugs?"
The annual UN drug report singles out Canada as a leading exporter of meth to the United States, the Philippines, Malaysia, Mexico and Jamaica.
In addition, "the resurgence" of ecstasy use south of the border "was fuelled by the manufacture [of ecstasy]in Canada and subsequent smuggling," according to the report which is based on global police, government and health records.
"For years we have pointed the finger at Colombia and Afghanistan," said Thomas Pietschmann, of the threat analysis section of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime. "But the same kind of standard should apply to Western countries like Canada."
The UN report says Canadian authorities busted a dozen ecstasy labs and 23 meth labs in 2009 - the latest year for which statistics are available - and seized close to half a metric ton of ecstasy.
Canada is seen as having lax control over the import and domestic trade of precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine. Combined with proximity to the huge U.S. market and easy access to well-established smuggling routes to Asia and Australia, that makes for a profitable nexus of crime.
Superintendent Brian Cantera, who heads the RCMP's drug squad in B.C., said organized crime groups in Canada with "familial ties" to India and China can bring in huge quantities of these chemicals needed to "cook" the synthetic drugs in underground laboratories set up across Canada.
"The potential for these drugs is so great, it allows them to purchase cocaine with the profits," he said, in effect creating a vicious circle between the forms of drugs.
And unlike the small "stove-top" meth operations that are typical in the U.S., "the labs we find here in Canada are large-scale productions, using very sophisticated equipment," said Sergeant Doug Culver, who heads the RCMP's synthetic drug initiative in Ottawa.
The transformation of Canada from a drug-importing country to a major export centre also poses new challenges to police, traditionally focused on uncovering huge shipments of illicit cargoes into the country or tracking domestic sales.
"The biggest difference is now we're the source country. That changes the dynamics tenfold," said Sgt. Hill. "We need a new game plan here. We need to start configuring a new strategy that says: Not acceptable. Not in our backyard. Not in our country."
Canada has begun take action to clean up the synthetic drug trade - and its reputation. On Thursday, a new law came into force making it illegal to possess the chemicals and equipment that could be used to make these drugs.
Supt. Cantera said he hopes the UN report will prompt Canada to take even stronger action. "I think we all share that black eye," he said. "Nobody enjoys that kind of notoriety."
The new face of drugs: cocaine down, meth up
The good news is that the global consumption of traditional drugs such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis has declined or remained stable.
The bad news is that the production and abuse of new synthetic drugs - not just meth and ecstasy, but also chemical products designed to act like cannabis and cocaine - are soaring.
"The gains we have witnessed in the traditional drug markets are being offset by a fashion for synthetic 'designer drugs' mimicking illegal substances," said Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The UN reports that methamphetamine use has started to increase again in North America, following several years of decline, and is sweeping East Asia.
Perhaps the best indication of the kinds of drugs that are plaguing the streets is the kinds of drugs that are making up the biggest police busts.
While traditional drugs such as marijuana and cocaine still dominate the world drug scene, the UN reports that cocaine seizures in North America fell by 43 per cent between 2005 and 2009, "reflecting the overall decline of the cocaine market." But over the same period, seizures of amphetamines shot up 87 per cent.
"I've never seen a more insidious drug than meth," said RCMP Sergeant Brent Hill, a 20-year veteran of the drug wars. "The potency and the addiction rate are just so alarming. I've been with the families. I've seen the devastation."
Myanmar producing higher levels of opium: UN
The country's share of global opium production more than doubled between 2007 to 2010, says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
A blight that wiped out much of the opium harvest in Afghanistan last year didn't do a lot to stem the flow of the drug, much of which is turned into heroin and sold around the world.
Myanmar, controlled by a military junta, stepped in to fill the void. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that country's share of the global opium production more than doubled from five to 12 per cent between 2007 to 2010.
And despite - or perhaps because of - the fighting in Afghanistan, where the Taliban use opium to finance their operations, the fields of poppies will likely bloom more abundantly this year.
"Our preliminary findings indicate that Afghan opium production will probably rebound to high levels in 2011," warned Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UNODC.
The dope on drugs
210 million people, or 4.8 per cent of the world's population aged 15 to 64, took illicit substances at least once in the previous year.
Between 125 and 203 million people used cannabis at least once in the past year, making it "by far the most widely produced and consumed illicit substance globally."
200,000 deaths a year were caused by drugs, about half of them fatal overdoses.
157 tons of cocaine were consumed by Americans in 2009, making up 36 per cent of global consumption.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime