Central Asia braces for war on synthetic drugs

Data on the seizure of synthetic drugs in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan point to an unmistakeable trend. Trafficking and consumption are surging, and the authorities appear at a loss to stem the tide.

An Air Astana pilot was heading to western Kazakhstan earlier this week when he was arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs.

The good news, his employer said later in a statement, was that he was not going to fly the plane. He was just a passenger.

According to news outlet CMN.kz, the 31-year-old was travelling from Almaty to the city of Aktau to attend a school event to encourage children to take up flying as a profession.

A medical examination found the man had mephedrone, a stimulant, in his system. The pilot later reportedly confessed he has been living with addiction to illegal narcotics since 2021 and that he had consumed four grams of the drug the day before the arrest.

The routine he performed to buy his drugs is becoming increasingly commonplace across Central Asia and is prompting authorities to worry that they have a major synthetic narcotics crisis on their hands.

Dealers advertise their wares online, typically through social media tools like Telegram. The buyer and seller never meet. The drug is delivered by a courier – the zakladchik. This delivery-person is often underage. Payments with cryptocurrencies are near-impossible to trace.

Addressing Interior Ministry leadership in January, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev evinced exasperation at failure by the police to tackle the problem.

“I have delivered instructions on this matter on several occasions. But there have been no serious results. The rapid spread in the availability of synthetic drugs has led to an increase in drug addiction among young people,” Tokayev said.

The volume of illegal drug seizures in Kazakhstan is surging dramatically, as datacompiled by Finprom.kz has shown. In 2018, law enforcement officers detected and confiscated 20.3 tons of narcotics. Last year, that figure had doubled to 41.1. tons.

The 143-fold increase in the interception of synthetic drugs – a category that encompasses mephedrone, methamphetamine, MDMA, and synthetic cannabinoids – over that period, up from 7.7 kilograms to 1.1 tons, is even more startling.

Those numbers are doubtless attributable to the growing availability of the narcotics, but there is a more bureaucratic explanation too. With new variants of synthetic drugs appearing on the market so fast, law enforcement barely used to have the time to classify them as illegal substances. In 2019, the timeframe for classing an illegal narcotic as such was slashed from one year to just one month.

The anonymized and hard-to-detect nature of the trade at street level, however, means that the seizure figures are almost certainly a major undercount.

The share of synthetics in the total volume of drug seizures in Kazakhstan in 2023 was a modest 2.7 percent. But those narcotics are particularly difficult to intercept since they usually are processed in-country.

Kazakh lawmakers have called for the creation of a dedicated anti-narcotics force to address the crisis. International precedent for pursuing a primarily punitive approach is not encouraging, though. The founding of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the United States in the early 1970s did little to prevent the appearance of a colossal trans-national drug trafficking industry.

Earlier this month, Kamchybek Tashiyev, the head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), a figure increasingly casting himself in the mould of an all-conquering generalissimo, declared “an irreconcilable war against the drug business, against the distribution of drugs, and against the use of drugs.”

“Wherever you go, young people, especially teenagers, students, our beautiful young men and women, are given a couple of drugs to try out, and then they become addicts,” he said.

Tashiyev directed the police and the security services to keep a close eye on schools, universities, nightclubs, cafes, and restaurants in particular.

The patrons of a handful of bars in the capital, Bishkek, got a taste of what that will look like on the weekend before Tashiyev made those remarks. Over a series of raids, units of police officers barged into targeted establishments, at times needlessly smashing decorative installations and bossing partygoers around, according to eyewitnesses. Police press releases indicate that the haul of alleged illegal substances and materials found in these raids was sparse.

Still, Kyrgyz law enforcement officials insist they are registering important wins.

Marsel Dootaliyev, a senior official in the Interior Ministry’s anti-drug trafficking service, said this week that 27 drugs labs have been “liquidated” in Kyrgyzstan over the past three years.

“Last year alone, four drug laboratories were liquidated. All of them were located outside of Bishkek. In open areas, so they could tell whether the house was being watched,” Dootaliyev told Sputnik radio.

Dootaliyev’s office says that while 28 kilograms of synthetic drugs were seized in 2020-2021, that figure rose to 89 kilograms in 2022, and then up to 150 kilograms in 2023.

The emphasis laid by Tashiyev on heavy-handed criminalization of the entire spectrum of the drug world, from trafficker all the way down to consumer, stands at odds with the more therapeutic approach favoured by groups like Ganesha, a healthcare-focused nongovernmental organization based in Bishkek.

“Our organization was created for young girls who were struggling with drug addiction,” Tatyana Musagaliyeva, director of Ganesha, told the United Nations Development Program, under whose auspices her NGO operates. “We are working to create a favorable legal environment so that people are not afraid to seek medical and legal help when it is needed. Drug addiction is not a crime, but a chronic disease and people with such a disease also need accessible services.”

Life is about to get harder for small NGOs like Ganesha.

A new law approved in early April will, by requiring them to file time-consuming paperwork, make the work of an untold number of NGOs unsustainable.

The U.S. government has already warned that the legislation may compromise its ability to provide assistance to organizations in Kyrgyzstan working in healthcare, among other areas.

If officials in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and others countries in the region use only the stick to deal with the synthetic drug problem, the results may not be to their liking.

 Havli – A Central Asia Substack

By Peter Leonard · Launched a month ago

Commentary and news from Central Asia

Get involved

Share This