Synthetic drugs are different, and our response should be too.

The explosion of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine is the most significant change in the drug trade in the past 20 years. Unlike plant-based drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, which require control of large swathes of territory and a favorable climate, synthetic drugs have low barriers to entry. They are relatively cheap and easy to manufacture, easy to conceal, and more potent than traditional drugs. From a trafficker’s point of view, it’s the perfect drug. They are also incredibly deadly.

Illegal drugs have killed more than a million Americans since the turn of the century. One drug, fentanyl, is now the leading cause of death for adults aged 18 to 45 – more than car crashes, violent crime and COVID-19. And the flow of synthetic drugs shows no signs of abating.

This has significant implications for US national security. The overwhelming majority of synthetic drugs enter the United States from Mexico, manufactured on an industrial scale with chemicals imported from China, then transported across the southwest border. Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CNJG) maintain a stranglehold on the drug trade largely due to their proximity to the United States, the largest consumer of drugs in the world. world. According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, no other group is currently in a position to challenge them. So what to do?

There is no miracle solution to such a complex problem. However, some strategies are more effective than others, particularly those aimed at disrupting the “upstream” drug trade before it becomes more difficult to stop. The urgency of the current drug crisis compels the United States to consider bold new strategies commensurate with the threat and not rely on other countries that may not have the best interests of the United States at heart. ‘America. This includes continued support for traditional law enforcement activities and more proactive measures focused on stopping the production of synthetic drugs.

First, the United States must pressure China and Mexico to strictly control precursor chemicals used to manufacture synthetic drugs. In 2019, the Chinese government banned the production and sale of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues after an intensive U.S. diplomatic campaign resulted in a dramatic decrease in these substances being shipped directly from China to the United States. However, Beijing and Mexico have been slow to control precursor chemicals, which has simply shifted production from China to Mexico. The United States is expected to pursue a similar diplomatic offensive to persuade China and Mexico to control precursor chemicals. If it does not act, the United States must be prepared to take additional measures to protect Americans.

For example, the United States and its partners must redouble their efforts to ban precursor chemicals transported from China to Mexico. The United States should redirect the limited number of US Coast Guard and naval assets operating in the Caribbean to target the flow of chemical precursors into the Pacific and increase the efforts of law enforcement, military and government. intelligence to detect, monitor and ban these substances. While this is likely to face strong opposition from foreign governments and companies concerned about supply chains, there is precedent. In 2003, the United States launched the Proliferation Security Initiative, a voluntary, multilateral effort to disrupt the trade in weapons of mass destruction, means of delivery and related materials. And while everyone recognizes the dangers posed by WMD, precursor chemicals pose a much more immediate threat to the United States. In fact, senior US military and Homeland Security officials have considered designating fentanyl as WMD, highlighting just how dangerous these substances really are.

Finally, the United States should capitalize on lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by targeting chemists who, like bombmakers, are relatively few in number and difficult to replace. US drug enforcement agencies should redouble their efforts to identify and neutralize drug chemists, many of whom are highly trained and known to transfer their knowledge to other malicious actors. Treating pharmacists as “high-value targets” would require no new authority, just a shift in focus, and would have a far greater impact than trying to arrest other cartel members.

America’s drug crisis is relentless. The treadmill-like influx of synthetic drugs has complicated law enforcement efforts and led to a growing number of overdose deaths. To combat the drug crisis, the United States must improve in all areas of drug policy, including demand reduction, supply reduction, and treatment. However, the spread of designer drugs is largely driven by supply-side factors and therefore requires new, proactive drug control strategies to stop these drugs at the source. Ideally, other countries around the world, especially China and Mexico, would support these efforts, but if they don’t, the United States must “strangle the baby in the cradle.”

American lives depend on it.

• Jim Crotty is the former deputy chief of staff of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. He is currently Associate Vice President at The Cohen Group, a Washington, DC-based strategic consulting firm.

Alvin J. Chase