The soaring popularity of ya ba, a mix of methamphetamine and
caffeine usually consumed in pill form, is rattling governments
across Asia, with annual sales in Bangladesh alone estimated at $3
Bangladesh consumes around 2 million ya ba pills a day, most of it
made in labs in the lawless border regions of Myanmar, according to
national and transnational anti-drugs officials.
The ban on pseudoephedrine imports was approved late last month and
will be announced soon, according to three officials at the
Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) in Dhaka. It was aimed at
choking off supplies for domestic ya ba production before it becomes
too established, they said.
"With this decision, no neighboring country, including Myanmar, can
say that Bangladesh is a hub for producing ya ba," said Nazrul Islam
Sikder, a senior DNC official.
Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant used in popular over-the-counter
cold remedies. But it can also be used as a so-called precursor in
methamphetamine production, prompting governments around the world
to impose new controls on the drug in recent years with some, such
as Mexico, banning imports altogether.
Bangladesh's annual pseudoephedrine imports have jumped more than
six times to around 20 tonnes from five years ago, according to the
minutes of a December government meeting on the issue seen by
A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of State identified Bangladesh
as a source and transit point for the chemical diverted to make the
drug methamphetamine elsewhere. (http://bit.ly/2mIi8yS)
Another senior DNC official denied any international pressure behind
the latest ban. He requested anonymity.
YA BA CRACKDOWN
Bangladesh has legally sourced pseudoephedrine from countries such
as Brazil, Italy, India, China and Singapore for the manufacture of
around eight types of cold pills, mostly by local companies.
The local unit of GlaxoSmithKline said it stopped making or selling
any medicine containing pseudoephedrine in 2010, describing the move
as a "decision taken by business at that time". The company said it
had not received any formal communication on the ban of
pseudoephedrine from the Bangladesh government.
One kg of pseudoephedrine, costing up to $67, can be used to make as
much as 400,000 ya ba pills worth around $626,000.
"This has encouraged many pharmaceutical companies into misusing
pseudoephedrine," DNC's Chief Chemical Examiner, Dulal Krishna Saha,
told the meeting, without naming any firm.
[to top of second column]
The DNC sources also declined to identify any company diverting
pseudoephedrine into illicit channels.
The ban was unlikely to cause any shortage of cold medicine in
Bangladesh because alternatives were available, said Golam Kibria,
director of Bangladesh's drug regulatory authority.
Anti-narcotics officials in Myanmar say large quantities of
pseudoephedrine produced in India's huge and ill-regulated
pharmaceutical sector are smuggled into the country to make ya ba,
and DNC officers in Bangladesh, which also borders India, and
international experts acknowledged there was a risk of a similar
smuggling trade developing.
"Controls can work done right, but at the same time bans can
sometimes create lucrative black markets," said Jeremy Douglas,
regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and
"We often see smugglers and traffickers address demand for banned
substances. Organized crime very effectively watch markets and will
not hesitate if there is money to be made."
Apart from the ban, Bangladesh has also prepared a secret list of
around 100 people driving ya ba trafficking in the country,
according to two DNC officials. Some of them have already been
caught, police officials said.
Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina has personally monitored the campaign
against ya ba, and her political adviser told Reuters last month
that the influx of Rohingya Muslim refugees from neighboring Myanmar
was worsening the drug problem.
The stateless refugees, who can't easily be traced, are the
preferred carriers of ya ba, police officials said.
Bangladesh narcotics officials plan to visit Myanmar this month to
discuss curbing the flow of ya ba.
(Reporting by Serajul Quadir and Krishna N. Das in DHAKA; Additional
reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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