Opioids, including fentanyl, heroin, and emerging synthetic opioids, are fueling a deadly drug crisis in the United States. Tragically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 105,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in October 2021. This rate increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the CDC, this is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in the United States in a 12-month period. Synthetic opioids, specifically illicitly manufactured fentanyl, are the primary drivers of overdose deaths in the United States. The U.S. Department of State plays a key role to address the nation’s overdose crisis, as part of a broader whole-of-government approach. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) leads the Department’s efforts to reduce the supply of illicit fentanyl and synthetic drugs coming to the United States from overseas, as well as to reduce drug demand worldwide.
The new modality of synthetic drug trafficking poses a significant challenge to the United States. Drug traffickers often mix synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, into heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and other drugs; this practice can leave users unaware of the drug’s potentially lethal potency. Due to their potency, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids can be manufactured overseas, marketed anonymously on the open and dark webs, and shipped directly to the United States in small, hard-to-detect quantities, including through international mail and express consignment shippers. Persistent demand in the United States, the ease and low cost to manufacture, high potency, low risk of detection, and extraordinary profitability, coupled with some countries’ lack of well-developed justice and law enforcement institutions and techniques enable this trade.
To counter these new models of illicit opioid trafficking and the challenges they bring, in 2019 the Department adopted a five-year strategy to disrupt illicit synthetic drugs along their international supply chains. The strategy is focused on increasing the cost, risk, and difficulty of manufacturing and trafficking these drugs and on reducing the global demand fueling the illicit market. INL uses its diplomatic and foreign assistance tools to: 1) use our influence in international institutions to mobilize a global response; 2) work with the People’s Republic of China to address the production, sale, and export of precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of illicit drugs; 3) partner with Mexico to reduce the production and trafficking of illicit opioids and other drugs; 4) coordinate with the Treasury Department and others to apply financial sanctions and other deterrents to bring transnational criminals to justice and disrupt the shipment of fentanyl and other drugs to the United States; 5) strengthen coordination with the private sector; and 6) promote practices to reduce drug demand worldwide. In light of the key role that financial flows play in the operations of criminal groups and laundering of their proceeds, INL emphasizes strengthening the ability of our partners to crack down on money laundering, corruption, and financial crime. INL works closely with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and other agencies on each of these pillars, to advance the
Biden-Harris Administration Drug Policy Priorities.
As an example of INL’s efforts, the Bureau has worked with the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to fund the Databank on Precursor Chemicals program. This project supports real-time intelligence sharing and international law enforcement cooperation to prevent the diversion and illicit manufacturing of precursor chemicals and facilitate transnational investigations. INL also funds the INCB’s Global Rapid Interdiction of Dangerous Substances Program, or GRIDS. That project helps law enforcement action through the real-time exchange of intelligence on shipments or trafficking of new psychoactive substances, including fentanyl-related substances. With information provided through GRIDS, the INCB has facilitated a number of multilateral investigations that resulted in the disruption of several international trafficking cells and high-profile arrests including, for example, (1) a fentanyl importer in North America, (2) India’s first darknet narcotics vendor, and (3) a Singapore-based freight forwarder.
Likewise, INL has partnered with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime to strengthen the technical, investigative, and forensic capacities of law enforcement agencies around the world, to effectively detect and control synthetic drugs and new substances, and to conduct operations involving the safe handling and disposal of synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals. INL funding led to the launch of the UN Toolkit on Synthetic Drugs, an online platform that offers a suite of training modules that has helped equip governments to better address synthetic drugs challenges. Topics covered include developing legislative responses to the opioid crisis, strengthening air cargo and aviation security, establishing monitoring and early warning systems for new psychoactive substances, and creating drug prevention and treatment programs. As of March 2022, over 14,000 users from 185 countries and territories have utilized the Toolkit. Users are able to access manuals, guidelines, and publications as well as e-learning and instructional videos.
While there is no simple solution to achieving lower numbers of fatal drug overdoses in the United States, every person and country must do their part. Within the purview of the Department of State, we continue to engage our foreign partners to attain more impactful counternarcotics and law enforcement outcomes through foreign assistance, diplomacy, and the deployment of deterrence tools. Reducing illicit drug supply is just one component of a multifaceted approach to end this epidemic and save American lives. The Department is committed to working with our international and interagency partners to develop sustainable solutions for a safer and more secure future.