South Africa’s big synthetic drug problem

 ·6 Apr 2024

South Africa is among 22 out of 193 countries recognised for having a synthetic drug market that detrimentally affects almost every segment of society, generates substantial profits, and plays a dominant role in the nation’s illicit economy.

This was highlighted in a recently released report titled Global Synthetic Drug Markets: The Present and Future by Jason Eligh, a researcher for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC).

Eligh said that “synthetic drugs are the future of drug trafficking [and] may also be the future of organised crime,” using the report to highlight how the illicit synthetic drug market has undergone a massive transformation in recent years.

This transformation is “driven by a complex interplay of factors ranging from decentralized production models and deepening geopolitical schisms to open-source databases and other technological advancements,” said the report.


Eligh said that there has been a recent “global explosion in illicit synthetic drug production, trafficking, and use.”

Synthetic drugs – sometimes called “designer drugs” or new psychoactive substances – are substances created in laboratories using chemicals.

Examples of these include methamphetamine, mandrax and ecstasy.

The Oxford Treatment Center describes them as “a growing public health concern, as they are largely unregulated, [and] these mind-altering substances can contain unpredictable, toxic ingredients that pose serious risks to a person’s health and well-being.”

The report said that “an increase in synthetic drug consumption could lead to an expanded and protracted public health crisis, overwhelming healthcare systems [as] the constantly changing composition of synthetic drugs increases the risks.”

South Africa’s synthetic drug market

South Africa is among 81 countries in the report that saw no change or improvement in the severity of their synthetic drug markets. However, it still boasts alarming stats.

Level of criminal influence of synthetic drug markets. Graphic: Global Synthetic Drug Markets: The Present and Future

Important to note is that the synthetic drug market is not tied to agricultural production geographies in the same manner as cocaine is to coca and heroin is to the opium poppy and, as such, are classified separately.

Interestingly, these sectors are also booming in the country, with the GI-TOC crime index describing South Africa as “one of the largest heroin consumer markets on the continent” and has become “a key player in the global cocaine trade”.

According to GI-TOC, South Africa’s “high-level… corruption, excellent transport infrastructure and resource shortages in drug control” allow for the relative ease of transit into, through, and out of the country.


South Africa has become a new trafficking route for methamphetamine to East Asia and is a transit hub for meth sourced from Nigeria and Western Asia.

The country is also “a key destination for Afghan meth [entering] via South Asian criminal networks,” said the report.

Estimated methamphetamine use levels in some areas of the country are among the highest reported in the world, “suggesting that the number of users may be far higher than previously thought,” it added.

While the report predicts that the global illicit synthetic drug trade will remain dominated by increasingly sophisticated transnational criminal networks, the market has become increasingly attractive to smaller operators.

“We see this in the increased levels of local production of meth, MDMA and methaqualone in southern African markets,” said the report.

Going forward

According to previous reporting by the GI-TOC, the capacity of law enforcement agents in South Africa to detect, identify and seize are greatly hampered.

“Frontline law enforcement officers face significant challenges in identifying whether a substance is legal or illegal, or even identifying a substance once it has been detected,” said the group.

Additionally, the report noted that South Africa’s legislative framework to tackle synthetic drugs shows “significant scope for improvement.”

Recommendations given by Eligh to address these challenges include:

  • Enhance the surveillance and reporting capabilities of countries to better identify, seize, and manage both current and emerging illicit synthetic drugs;
  • Strengthen monitoring and regulatory efforts in regions with weak governance, specifically targeting the management of precursor chemicals;
  • Support collaborative research in scientific and academic circles to enhance detection of synthetic drugs;
  • Expand laboratory ‘early warning’ systems for detecting and reporting new substances;
  • Improve the availability and accessibility of evidence-based treatment programs through adequate government funding;
  • Ensure access to essential medications in countries facing supply and usage challenges;
  • Integrate public health and security policies to safeguard legitimate uses of synthetic substances, prevent diversion, and differentiate between legal and illegal activities.
  • Adapt legal frameworks to the changing nature of synthetic drugs;
  • Pharmaceutical and chemical sectors should impose stricter controls on precursors for synthetic drug manufacturing.
A measure of state resilience to criminal markets, including synthetic drugs, and their capacity to respond to and mitigate the harms involved. Graphic: Global Synthetic Drug Markets: The Present and Future

Eligh said that “unless we respond to the global market expansion in synthetic drugs… in ways that are different from how we have responded to drug-related challenges in the past, we risk enabling a scenario where drug markets are predominantly synthetic, prominently decentralised and permanently embedded features of the global organized crime landscape.”

The full report on the global synthetic drug market can be found here, while a comprehensive analysis of South Africa’s organised crime index can be found here.

Read: South Africa now a booming market for international crime syndicates

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