Remarks for Global Panel Discussion at the National Prescription Drug and Heroin Summit

Remarks
James A. Walsh
Senior Bureau Official, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Hyatt Regency Hotel Atlanta
Atlanta, Georgia
April 3, 2018


(As Prepared)

Thank you Congressman Rogers, Nancy Hale, and Doug Edwards for inviting me to this Summit here in Atlanta. I am honored to be here with you this evening to talk about an issue that I lead at the U.S. Department of State, but in which we are all deeply invested. Whether at home or abroad, we all share the same goal of combating the opioid crisis. I am also pleased to moderate a panel discussion following my remarks with leading experts and partners on our continent and beyond.

All of us have heard the alarming report of 64,000 Americans loss from drug overdoses in 2016. That is almost as many people that died serving their country from Vietnam to the present – and in just one year. Unfortunately, our nation has faced a drug epidemic in our past, but if you compare our current crisis to the heroin epidemic in the 70s or the crack cocaine surge in the late 80’s, we were at most only experiencing 5,000 deaths at its peak. So, we have to ask ourselves, what is different? What is causing so many of our neighbors, friends, loved ones to die?

These astonishing numbers are fueled by surging imports of cocaine, methamphetamines, and yes opioids such as heroin and synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Opioids alone are responsible for 2/3 of our overdoses – or about 115 people a day. During this plenary, I, along with three other experts, will examine the question of what is different, and consider what can we do about it. We will explore the traditional trafficking model of transnational criminal organizations taking advantage of ungoverned spaces to grow a plant and turn it into a dangerous illicit drug with the use of precursor chemicals, and then use their trafficking routes, that are well established, to distribute a large amount of these drugs into our streets. We will also examine a new paradigm that has emerged as result of globalization and the internet where criminals produce and advertise synthetic drugs, then easily ship them to their customer and be paid at a very high profit margin via cryptocurrencies. Heroin has poured across the border in record amounts, but it is increasingly being combined with the new wave problem of synthetic drugs delivered in the mail, which have resulted in the deadly cocktail that we see on streets across America every day.

Combating this scourge requires leadership on all our parts, including an international response. The global nature of the crisis means the State Department needs to take action, and we have. We are working vigorously in the bureau that I lead, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, to leverage our partnerships and foreign assistance tools with the objective of driving down the supply of heroin and illicit opioids.

The State Department is committed to playing its part to stop these drugs and the transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, which are making billions of dollars off of these drugs that destroy American lives and communities. Addressing the opioid crisis is the State Department’s highest drug-control priority.

We understand that this public health crisis affects all levels of our society. This epidemic is indiscriminate, and of course, deadly.

There are two different dynamics in our opioid epidemic. On the demand side, we used to have a core group of heroin users but this group has increased significantly due to the well documented over prescribing of prescription drugs over the last 20 years.

On the supply side, we have the plant-based poppy, grown, extracted and refined into heroin, with over 90 percent coming from Mexico. The heroin is trafficked into the United States by the traditional drug cartels or “transnational criminal organizations.”

In addition, we have a new dynamic of synthetic opioids produced mostly from sources in China. These are the fentanyls and their related compounds. Dealers with access to industrial-scale chemical plants develop these drugs, which they sell online and deliver to downstream traffickers and users, often right to their doorstep.

The traffickers reap high profits from these synthetic drugs – fentanyl costs about $5,000 per kilogram, which can be cut, packaged, and resold for up to $2 million dollars. With fewer intermediaries, the profits are much greater.
This synthetic problem is a huge part of our crisis – with nearly 20,000 Americans dying from an overdose of synthetic drugs in 2016 – or nearly a third of all overdose deaths. While it is hitting us the hardest, this is a global problem. Any country that has drug users, an internet connection, and the mail system can be threatened by this problem.

So what are we doing about it? Our strategy involves a comprehensive approach to this difficult problem, working bilaterally, regionally, and in multilateral venues to address sources of supplies for illicit opioids. We are seeing some good results but since it took years for the problem to develop, it will take time to beat it back.

First, we are working with our neighbors. We are deepening our close partnership with Mexico to more aggressively eradicate poppy crops, train law enforcement, enhance border security, bring drug traffickers to justice, and disrupt their proceeds. Over 100 of Mexico’s most wanted high value targets, like Chapo Guzman, have been arrested, killed, or extradited to the United States.

We are sharing information with our southern neighbor by strengthening the intelligence analysis and investigative capabilities of Mexican agencies. This better enables them to carry out complex investigations against organized criminal groups involved in drug trafficking.

We are training and equipping Mexican law enforcement to identify and safely dismantle clandestine drug laboratories. This disrupts the production of heroin, methamphetamine, and other synthetic drugs destined for communities across America. INL has funded DEA training of over 300 Mexican counterparts in the specialized tactics necessary to stop these clandestine labs.

In North America, we work with Mexico and Canada, through the North American Drug Dialogue (NADD), to address the illicit drug trade and opioid crisis here on our continent. Partnering with Canada and Mexico helps us assess the scope of the crisis and supply routes, and increases our impact in stemming the production, distribution, financing, and health consequences of illicit drugs. We are grateful to our neighbors for our ongoing and collaborative dialogue as we work to identify innovative solutions to solve this crisis.

Next, the State Department has good counternarcotics cooperation with China. We are engaged bilaterally through high level dialogues and working groups, like the Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement. Since 2015, these engagements led China to establish domestic legal controls on the production and distribution of 143 substances, including five key fentanyl analogues.

China has taken action at our request, even though these drugs are not currently abused in China. Because of China’s tightening of regulations, we are seeing a direct reduction of these substances on the streets in the United States.

We are also working closely with China to improve coordination and screening of mail packages between the two countries. As an element of e-commerce, international shippers are supposed to provide advanced electronic data, or AED, on packages. However many nations still lack the capability to meet this technological standard. China ships the most packages to the United States and provides the most AED, but we are both committed to get all packages coming from China tagged with advanced electronic data. With better data, we can develop better solutions to targeting illicit opioids in the mail.

While we are working well with both Mexico and China, all three of us need to do more. The opioids are still coming primarily from those two countries. Only through continued strengthening of our partnerships will we be able to disrupt supply, making drugs more expensive and harder to find. Ultimately, this should result in fewer new addicts, and prompt existing addicts to seek out treatment rather than their next high.

We are also heavily engaged through international venues to combat the trafficking of illicit drugs to our streets. In particular, our support to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and our outreach to key international partners in the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), have paid dividends.

By working with and through these institutions, the United States secured international control over the deadly tranquilizer carfentanil and 11 other substances at the CND, held just two weeks ago.

The State Department set the table for this action beginning last October. We requested that the UN Secretary General add carfentanil to the list of substances that are internationally controlled under the UN drug control conventions. After a scientific review, the process culminated in this successful CND vote. What does this mean? We expect this will make it more difficult for traffickers to obtain carfentanil and the other substances because the international controls require countries to increase regulation, tracking, and reporting.

Another tool we have to combat the opioid epidemic is the Narcotics Rewards Program, which identifies and helps bring to justice major narcotics traffickers who operate outside the United States. The State Department works with our federal law enforcement partners, and offers rewards up to $25 million for the arrest and conviction of these individuals. This program is applied to traffickers of synthetic drugs and plant-based drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Addressing this international crisis is our top priority and I acknowledge we have much more work to do.

It takes years to get into a drug crisis, and it will take some time to get out, but families who may see their loved ones taken by fentanyl and other synthetic drugs do not have years to wait. And so, I can personally assure you, we at the State Department will act every day with the urgency of those families in mind.

Thank you very much.

As I mentioned earlier, we cannot do this alone and so I am excited to be joined by three distinguished speakers, who represent a diversity of international experience and perspective on this global threat. Following their remarks, I will moderate a conversation on best practices and information sharing to better prepare us in combatting the opioid crisis.

From Mexico, we have Mauricio Ibarra, General Director for North America Affairs from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

From the United States, we have Mr. Raymond Donovan, DEA’s Special Agent in Charge for the Special Operations Division.

From our partnership organization at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, in Vienna, Austria, we have Dr. Justice Tettey, who is the Chief of Laboratory and Science Section.

Please join me in welcoming them here to the stage.