Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to welcome you and our panelists to this very important discussion on “Confronting Emerging Synthetic Drug Challenges.” The international community has entered a critical phase in the fight against illicit narcotics. While we continue to fight traditional drug trafficking modalities, the business model for trafficking synthetic drugs and novel psychoactive substances (or “NPS”) has grown in prevalence and continues to evolve.
The way that synthetic drugs are manufactured, marketed, and trafficked marks a fundamental shift from traditional trafficking methods. Synthetic drugs can be produced virtually anywhere from chemicals that also have legitimate uses. As local regulatory controls shift, criminals respond by shifting to new production methods, including the use of uncontrolled and designer precursor chemicals, to evade law enforcement detection.
Additionally, preventing the diversion of precursor chemicals remains one of the most difficult challenges in reducing synthetic drug supplies, but also an opportunity to make improvements. For example, criminals can easily reference the growing list of nonscheduled precursor chemicals to facilitate their illicit manufacturing enterprises and this is a gap we need to urgently address.
The international legal framework for drug control is struggling to keep pace with this new trafficking modality. The UN drug conventions, as well as the laws of most countries, control drugs and their precursors individually based on a process firmly grounded in science and data. As we look for ways to be more innovative in our responses to these threats, we should consider whether we can evolve this approach (while keeping our policies and programs firmly grounded in science and data) to better respond to today’s drug-control realities where criminals can create a new NPS each week.
Another major challenge for us to consider is related to the 21st century tools that inadvertently provide numerous advantages to facilitate these criminal endeavors, including through illicit online transactions. The anonymity and convenience of the internet, social media, and other communications technologies allow criminals to aggressively and broadly market and sell drugs directly to clients on a global scale. The potency of even trace amounts of synthetic drugs means small, hard-to-detect quantities can be easily shipped through the mail. Clearly, this is a dangerously accessible and diffuse supply chain — a direct-to-consumer business model that bypasses and evades our usual countermeasures for stopping and bringing to justice traditional plant-based drug traffickers.
The effectiveness of this 21st century business model has led to and exacerbated the deadliest drug epidemic in American history, the opioids crisis. The United States is not alone in facing this challenge. The 2020 UN World Drug Report tells us that this phenomenon continues to escalate globally. Tramadol, an opioid painkiller, is widely trafficked for non-medical use in Africa. Fentanyl and its analogues are increasingly detected in seizures and overdose deaths in the European market and there are indications that other opioids such as codeine, morphine, tramadol and oxycodone are being increasingly misused in European Union countries. Beyond opioids, methamphetamine use is rising across several regions, particularly Asia. And hundreds of NPS have been synthesized globally in recent years. Any community with access to the internet and international mail is vulnerable.
To make matters worse, COVID-19 has impacted all facets of the illicit drug market, from its production and trafficking to consumption. Initial reports indicated early on that COVID-19 was disrupting the drug supply chain in a significant way. Early in the pandemic, when governments implemented border restrictions and limited commercial flights, criminals had reduced access to essential manufacturing equipment and materials as well as fewer opportunities to traffic drugs. But criminal organizations are highly adaptable and quickly overcame these challenges to continue their trade in dangerous synthetic drugs. At the same time, COVID-19 increased the demand for drugs as individuals around the world confronted increased isolation and anxiety as a result of the pandemic, and turned to the internet to buy dangerous substances, including synthetic drugs, online and ship them directly to their homes. Individuals in our socially distanced world proved to be uniquely vulnerable to this new trafficking model. Over 86,000 drug overdose deaths are estimated to have occurred in the United States from August 2019- July 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. These numbers suggest an acceleration in overdose deaths during the pandemic.
Evidence-based drug use prevention and treatment remains a critical component of any counternarcotics and public health strategy. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced governments and drug treatment professionals to adapt as physical distancing became the norm. Limitations on in-person gatherings initially created a barrier to accessing treatment services requiring new methods to deliver treatment. The United States has used innovative methods to expand access to treatment in the midst of the pandemic.
Partnering with experts, leaders, and stakeholders, we worked to turn these crises into opportunities for innovation and improvement in several key areas. These included financial relief for people and small businesses – which included treatment facilities. We expanded the use of telemedicine and electronic prescribing. We increased flexibility for treatment with methadone and buprenorphine (byoo-preh-nor-feen), and we ensured access to prescribed controlled substances needed to treat those suffering from COVID-19.
Today, our panel will discuss the most pressing challenges facing the international community in confronting emerging synthetic drug threats, including within the context of COVID-19. Topics will cover the use of non-scheduled precursor chemicals in drug manufacturing, new trafficking modalities, and public health approaches to emerging drug threats. The panel will explore innovations and policy options to address these challenges. I look forward to hearing the lessons and recommendations the experts can offer today to help us counter the growing threat of synthetic drugs.
I will now introduce our moderator for today’s panel, UNODC’s Chief of the Laboratory and Scientific Section, Justice Tettey. Dr. Tettey has led UNODC’s effort to advance innovative and creative programming to help the world respond more effectively to synthetic drug threats. We are grateful to have him here today. Justice, over to you.