Ms. Cindy Gire: Thank you. Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement!.I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia-Pacific. Today we are joined by Ambassador Luis Arreaga, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs here at the U.S. Department of State. I appreciate all of you taking time out of your day to participate in the briefing. Ambassador Arreaga will be speaking to us today from Washington, D.C. He will begin with opening remarks. We will then open it up to your questions. And with that, I will turn it over to our speaker.
Ambassador Arreaga: Thank you very much Cindy, and good evening to all of you. Thank you so much for joining this call. I do look forward to our conversation on a severe challenge that is confronting the entire world. I’m talking about synthetic, or “designer” drugs. This is an issue that requires urgent international attention. Synthetic drugs are dangerous, they are spreading quickly, and the international architecture that exists to control them is inadequate. Traffickers selling these drugs operate complex supply networks and distribution networks all around the world. These are the very same criminal networks that traffic persons, firearms, wildlife, to the detriment of societies not only in Asia but all over the world.
Synthetic drugs, unlike plant-based drugs, are quick to make, cheap to make, and easy to produce. And they have very high margins of profit that make them very attractive for criminal organizations. These substances spread faster than our ability to evaluate them and control them. There are now more than 700 known synthetic drugs which we call new psychoactive substances. The short name for that is NPS. Our approach is that we need to work together to stem their production and supply. We need to work together to track and control the chemicals that are used to make them—the precursor chemicals that are used to make them. And the United States, I can tell you in all sincerity, very much appreciates the cooperation that we have received from countries of your region.
For example, we have excellent law enforcement cooperation between the United States and China. Over the last two years, China has established domestic control for over 120 analogs and other psychoactive substances that we have discussed as needing additional controls. These steps will help prevent these illicit and dangerous substances from being imported into the United States and spreading to other parts of the world.
Just to give you a sense of how horrific the problem is in the United States, in 2015 alone, prescription and illicit opioids including fentanyl claimed the lives of over 33,000 Americans. Think about it… 33,000 people died in 2015 of overdoses. Oftentimes these overdose victims aren’t even aware that the drug killing them is fentanyl, which can be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl can be mixed with other drugs as well without the user’s knowledge and can be sold for greater profit by the traffickers.
Now, our collective efforts to combat illicit fentanyl production are paying off. Just two weeks ago, the U.N. made it more difficult to obtain the precursor chemicals that criminals use to produce illicit fentanyl. The U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs voted unanimously to control two of the most common chemicals used to make them. This vote would not have been possible without the support of the Asia region, including voting members of the Commission. They include Australia, China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand. The new regulations would require countries to regulate the production, sale, and export of these two essential precursors to fentanyl.
We also convened and supported the Bangkok III Conference in February. The purpose of the conference was to discuss steps that the international community can take to make control more effective and more immediate. Now I can tell you that we don’t live with the illusion that this will be a silver bullet to solving the opioid crisis. We know that the solution to this epidemic must also address treatment, it must also address domestic demand, as well as law enforcement actions to restrict supply.
Strong U.N. action against deadly drugs is not just to the benefit of the United States. It will make it more difficult for criminals to spread their poison in markets in Asia and other parts of the world. Keep in mind that narcotraffickers are smart and have shown an ability to adjust to our enforcement actions. They can move quickly to move these substances into Asia and all across the globe.
Let me stop there and let me thank you for your willingness to participate in this call this evening. I look forward to your questions. Over to you Cindy.
Ms. Gire: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s event. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related to today’s topic: “International Efforts to Combat Illicit Drugs.” With that, I’ll remind you to press star 1 on your phone to join the question queue. We will start with our first question that was submitted from the China Business Journal. That is: What is the President’s attitude on U.S.-China cooperation against drugs and what will be the plan for further anti-drug battles?
Ambassador Arreaga: That is a very good question. I am not going to speak for the President, but I can speak on behalf of the government. And I can tell you on behalf of the government, we are very appreciative of the cooperation we have with China on the subject of combatting international narcotics trafficking. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, China has been a tremendously effective partner with the United States and China’s commitment has been shown some very specific steps to control their domestic production of chemicals that can be used for illicit drugs.
Ms. Gire: Thank you. And again, a reminder to press star 1 on your phone to join the question queue. Our next question comes from AFP in Bangkok. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi this is [Aidan Jones] from AFP in Bangkok. I was wondering if you may be able to comment on whether the U.S. government is aware at all of President Rodrigo Duterte’s use of fentanyl and whether that’s a concern and a wider comment on whether his “shoot-to-kill” drug policy is useful? Please.
Ambassador Arreaga: I am not aware of his use of fentanyl. But I can tell you that the United States does recognize the Philippines’ commitment to fight drugs, but we are concerned that the Philippine government’s approach raises some significant concerns relating to human rights and due process. We are deeply concerned about reports of extrajudicial killings by or at the behest of government authorities in the Philippines.
Ms. Gire: Thank you. Again, please press star one to join the question queue. Our next question also comes from Bangkok, Thailand. Please go ahead.
Question: NHK is now covering narcotic drugs suppression in Thailand. We are focusing on the arrest of [Inaudible Name] a Laotian drug lord arrested in Thailand on the 19th of January 2017. And after that we followed up with an investigation on the case and we found that there are some celebrities in Thailand allegedly involved in his network in Thailand as well. This has become big news and we are very interested in this, so as a person in charge of the issue could you please share your view on the issue happening in Thailand and also in Southeast Asian countries as well especially Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Ambassador Arreaga: I do not have any knowledge of any specific individuals participating but obviously Thai authorities have also been a very strong partner of the United States in trying to address the issue of narcotics trafficking. In fact, I met with Thai authorities during my visit to Bangkok in February for the Bangkok III conference. We had a very good conversation and we have a very good partnership. We also have programs throughout the region meant to support and to strengthen the capabilities of countries of the region, for example Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma, and Thailand, to strengthen their ability to control their borders because a lot of these drugs cross borders and we need to work with the authorities to strengthen their capabilities and we have a very good relationship. We also partnered with the U.N. We have a program that is called “Border Liaison Offices” that trains the authorities to have better control of their borders.
Ms. Gire: Thank you. Again, a reminder to press star 1 if you’d like to ask a question. Our next question was submitted from the Cambodia Daily, and I’ll read that now: “How is the U.S. working with Cambodia to combat drug trafficking into and within Cambodia’s borders?”
Ambassador Arreaga: I just mentioned the one program which is called “Border Liaison Offices.” This is a program we work through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and they’re meant to address gaps in the capabilities of the countries of the region through robust technical assistance including training, including equipment, including capabilities to investigate crimes, so we do have some cooperation through the U.N. to help Cambodia.
Ms. Gire: Thank you. We’ll wait a minute or two to make sure there aren’t any more questions. And while we do that I’ll just ask you Ambassador Arreaga if you have any final comments before we take the final question and close the call.
Ambassador Arreaga: Number one, the United States is grateful for the willingness of the countries of the region to work with us to address the international scourge of drugs. I had a number of conversations when I was in Bangkok and there is a wide recognition that this is a problem that not only affects the United States, it’s a problem that has a tremendously negative potential not only for the countries of the region but for the rest of the world. So we look forward to working with our partners to continue to address these problems and this challenge.
Ms. Gire: Thank you. And it looks like we do have a couple of more questions if you do have the time. We have a question from CNBC in Beijing, China. Please go ahead.
Question: This is Eunice with CNBC in Beijing. What is the most common way that the fentanyl is being trafficked into the U.S. from here? And you had said that the Chinese are cooperating with the United States to reduce the chemicals locally, so what is the nature of the problem? What are you finding here?
Ambassador Arreaga: Up until recently, fentanyl, most of it enters through Mexico and, to some extent, Canada. And there is also the problem of the use of the postal system to export it from China. So with the latest measures, then, it will be much easier to control the actual export of the precursors and it will not be as easy as it was before so it’s a problem of not only the precursors but the actual chemicals being exported. But the Chinese authorities have demonstrated a willingness and they have actually taken steps to address this problem. You live there and you realize there are literally tens of thousands of chemical factories so it’s a tough challenge for them as well but we are satisfied that the steps they are taking and our continuing discussions with them are producing results. And I would direct you to the D.E.A. who talks to them and who works with them on the ground to give you examples of some of the specific steps they have taken to address not only the fentanyl but some of the drug problems that we had in the past where Chinese intervention has been extremely helpful.
Ms. Gire: Thank you. And we’ll go to our final question from The Business World in the Philippines. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello I’m from Business World. My question is, considering that particularly Southeast Asia is linked by waters, is maritime defense a crucial area in preventing illegal drug trafficking? And what extent is it being done?
Ambassador Arreaga: Absolutely. In fact, one of the programs that we have with the Philippines is our efforts to strengthen maritime security. We’re working with the Philippine Coast Guard to strengthen their capabilities to have a much better sense of maritime domain to prevent the illegal importation or exportation of drugs to the Philippines or out of the Philippines. It’s one of the key areas where not only with the Philippines but with several countries of the region where we are trying to strengthen those capabilities.
Ms. Gire: Thank you Ambassador Arreaga. I know that we are out of time, so I would like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today, and I will turn it back over to the phone operator.
Ambassador Arreaga: My pleasure.