Synthetic drugs will fuel the next wave of illicit drug use
Jhe illicit drug market continues to grow more treacherous. Illegal drugs have killed more than 107,000 Americans in the past 12 months, the highest number on record, and are now the leading cause of death among Americans aged 18 to 45, more than firearms, accidents car and the Covid-19.
The rise in overdose deaths can be attributed to a drug – fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is several times more potent than heroin. Once found only in hospitals, fentanyl is now ubiquitous. It can be found in every corner of America and in some places has supplanted the supply of other drugs like heroin.
Fentanyl is the latest illicit drug to hit the United States, but it won’t be the last. What could the next era of drug trafficking look like?
Some experts have suggested we are already entering a ‘fourth wave’ of the opioid crisis, with fentanyl increasingly mixed with stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, combinations known as speedballs and goofballs . Others have noted the emergence of nitazenes, a family of new synthetic opioids more potent than fentanyl. Public health authorities have detected nitazenes in the Southwest, South, Midwest, and parts of the Eastern United States.
And, of course, drug traffickers continue to synthesize new illicit drugs every day, a process that is likely to accelerate with advances in artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and biotechnology.
It is difficult to predict which illicit substance will become the “next fentanyl”, but one thing is certain: it will be synthetic.
Synthetic drugs are the future of drug trafficking. Plant-based drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, require large tracts of land and favorable climates. Synthetic drugs, on the other hand, have relatively low barriers to entry. They are relatively cheap and easy to manufacture, more potent than traditional drugs, and incredibly lucrative. From a drug dealer’s perspective, synthetic drugs are a far superior product.
By the end of 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime had identified more than 1,100 new psychoactive substances – synthetic drugs designed to mimic the effects of more common illicit drugs – in more than 134 countries in all regions of the world. None of these have yet captured the same kind of market share as fentanyl, but it’s clear people are looking for the next big thing.
While a lot of people are focusing on the next deadly substance, I think the biggest change might be how these substances are produced. Today, many of the illicit drugs used in the United States come from Mexico, where they are manufactured and trafficked on an industrial scale. However, it’s not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when most illicit drugs are homemade.
Imagine, for example, a world in which consumers create their own illicit drugs at home with recipes developed by AI and created with 3D printers and raw materials purchased online. It would be like having your own freestyle drink machine, but for illegal drugs. While a handful of hobby chemists are already engaging in some version of this, the continued democratization of information, technology, and commerce will allow more people to engage in making do-it-yourself drugs. same.
This would have huge ramifications for the drug trade and public health. First, it is likely that transnational drug trafficking as we know it would all but disappear, requiring a complete overhaul of existing drug policies. It would also be very difficult to police. How do you prevent people from reusing legitimate items to manufacture illicit drugs?
In Mexico, cartels are already experimenting with what is called pre-precursor chemicals to make fentanyl and methamphetamine, chemicals that are widely used to produce many legal substances and therefore cannot be controlled.
Perhaps the biggest question is what homemade drugs would mean for public health. On the one hand, it would seem to favor the increase in drug use and addiction. On the other hand, it could also lead to a reduction in violent crime, corruption, and other negative ramifications of drug trafficking.
What I have described above is only one possible outcome and in any case is unlikely to happen overnight. However, any such shift in drug trafficking would represent a paradigm shift in drug control, particularly efforts to reduce drug supply. In a world where virtually anyone, anywhere can make increasingly dangerous substances, educating Americans — especially young Americans — about the dangers of drug use will become even more important.
As illicit drugs become even more accessible than they currently are, policymakers need to think carefully about how to keep Americans safe and make informed choices about their health.
Jim Crotty is Associate Vice President of The Cohen Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, DC, and former Deputy Chief of Staff for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.