Speeches: Opening Remarks At The G7+ Expert Group Meeting On “Innovative Responses To The Challenges Posed By Synthetic Drugs”

Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

James A. Walsh

James A. Walsh

Thank you, Mr. Loken, for that introduction; and welcome to Washington, everyone! Thank you to our Canadian friends for convening this important meeting; we know it took a tremendous amount of work and we want to express our gratitude to your team. This meeting is quite timely as we examine the commitments made a few months ago in Vienna during the 61stUN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), where the international community unanimously adopted a resolution to mobilize a strategic response to the international challenges posed by synthetic opioids and voted to place additional, dangerous synthetic drugs under international control.

In the CND resolution, countries acknowledged their grave concerns about the new components of the world drug problem, whereby deadly synthetic drugs are rapidly manufactured, sold online, and distributed through the international mail or express consignment shipping services. There are more than 800 new known synthetic drugs, with approximately one new substance being created each week. Of these, INCB reports that they have identified 77 dangerous fentanyl analogues with no known medical use that are not controlled internationally, and are showing up in world drug markets. Yet, we are scheduling them at a rate of around 10 to 12 a year. We are not keeping pace, and we have to do better. Lives are at stake.

Traffickers are innovative and nimble, and can easily adapt and shift methodologies to evade national and international controls. In fact, we learned from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that traffickers have developed new psychoactive substances (NPS) or new synthetic drugs that can mirror every major type of drug. These mirror images are not controlled within the international framework and therefore allow traffickers to evade law enforcement detection. It is clear that our responses have to be more innovative, more nimble, and more adaptable if we want to out-pace these criminals. We are grateful that Canada convened these great minds here today to start thinking about creative solutions that will effectively mobilize the international response we committed to during the CND in March.

Our global authorities on the international threats posed by synthetic drugs – including UNODC, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the World Health Organization (WHO) – report that synthetic opioids are some of the most dangerous and profitable substances in the criminal markets. These drugs are fueling thousands of deaths because they are incredibly lethal and difficult to detect. For some, a dose as small as a few grains of sand can be fatal. According to UNODC’s 2017 World Drug Report, opioid misuse remains high in Southwest Asia and Eastern Europe, and it has been expanding in Western Europe and others parts of North America. An estimated 190,000 deaths globally are attributed to drug use disorders, mostly among people using opioids.

This trend certainly is manifesting itself in the United States and is fueling a drug crisis of devastating proportions. In the United States, we have seen a crisis created through the combination of (1) new trafficking modalities – whereby small quantities of synthetic drugs are sold online and trafficked through the international mail system or express consignment carriers; (2) sophisticated transnational criminal organizations trafficking a large supply of heroin into the country; and (3) increased demand fueled by an excess of prescriptions pills. This crisis is claiming thousands of lives in the United States annually. In 2016, nearly 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States. Of these 64,000, over two-thirds, died from overdoses involving prescription or illicit opioids, including fentanyl. President Trump has made it a cornerstone of his Administration to combat this deadly drug crisis in the United States, and U.S. government agencies are examining domestic responses in law enforcement and public health programs to see where we should make changes, or redouble efforts.

For example, in February 2018, the Department of Justice, through its Drug Enforcement Administration, known as DEA, invoked its emergency temporary scheduling authorities to domestically control “fentanyl-related substances,” not already scheduled, as a class. Under this authority, the Department of Justice can prosecute anyone who possesses, imports, distributes, or manufactures any illicit fentanyl-related substance in the same way as other substances controlled in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. My Justice Department and DEA colleagues are here today and will talk in greater detail about this temporary scheduling process as a possible tool for other countries to use to enhance controls on synthetic drugs.

Additionally, the United States is working diligently to curb demand for these dangerous drugs. As part of President Trump’s response to the opioid crisis, he directed the government to reduce the misuse of opioids through a variety of interventions, including through prescription drug monitoring programs, state-level legislation on prescription drug access, prescribing guidelines for the medical community, increased access to substance use disorder and recovery services, and educational programs to increase awareness on the dangers associated with the misuse of synthetic opioids. The United States is devoting more than $4 billion to this effort.

On behalf of the United States, I look forward to sharing information learned from U.S. experiences in responding to these dangerous new threats; my colleagues from across the U.S. government and I are also eager to learn from each of you about your best practices and lessons learned. While we can each do more in our national frameworks to address these challenges, we also can do more together to increase vital voluntary cooperation through information sharing efforts.

Luckily for us, our international organization partners already support existing mechanisms that can facilitate this voluntary cooperation. The UNODC, the INCB, WHO, and regional bodies, such as the OAS’ Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), support information sharing platforms. These platforms not only inform us about new and emerging threats, but they also yield essential data needed to inform the treaty-mandated scientific reviews undertaken by WHO to generate scheduling recommendations to the CND. If our shared objective is to enhance international control of synthetic drugs, then we must collectively prioritize efforts to provide WHO with more data to inform its scientific reviews that assess a substance’s abuse potential and harms associated with its use.

These platforms can generate this needed data through information sharing among our expert practitioners working together to dismantle international illicit supply chains. The platforms also generate critical information on the misuse of certain drugs. For example, information derived from these portals helped us learn that fentanyl precursor chemicals are used to illicitly manufacture fentanyl.

We thank Canada also for circulating a concept note of ideas for the experts to discuss here today. The concept note offers a “menu of options” to help us respond to this threat within our respective national frameworks. If our work can serve as an incubator to inform global solutions to fight this crisis, it will be time well-spent.

If nothing else, these new trafficking realities show us that we are all vulnerable. Anyone with an internet connection and access to international mail or express delivery service could be the next target. So, we must be resolute in our efforts to effectively response to this new threat. Synthetic opioids are fuelling today’s crisis, but tomorrow a new synthetic drug may well be the traffickers first choice, and our strategic responses must be nimble enough to adapt to curb tomorrow’s drug crisis. That is the challenge we need to start solving today, and it is one of the most difficult problems we’ve faced in our efforts to address and counter the world drug problem.

Again, I am excited to be here and look forward to hearing your various perspectives on ways to address these critical challenges. Thank you.