UN agency cracks down on designer drugs

2nd of three games

SEEKING to address a global crisis that has ties to Asia, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) last week announced a new initiative against synthetic drugs.

“Now is the time to take evidence-based action to stem the synthetic drug crisis,” UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly said of the agency’s response to a global problem in rapid growth.

Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC. Photo from UN website

“By paying attention to science and investing in early warning, we can save lives, protect the health and sustainability of our societies, and help prevent the next crisis,” she added.

The strategy involves four “spheres of action”: multilateralism and international cooperation, early warnings of emerging synthetic drug threats, science-based health responses and counter-narcotics interventions.

The challenges of tackling illicit drugs have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, Waly said, noting that economic hardship and growing inequality were pushing people to make dangerous choices.

“Young people trying to cope with poverty resort to opioids,” an unnamed African health worker quoted by UNODC said in a report. Nearly half of all countries on the continent have reported non-medical use, seizures or trafficking of tramadol, an opioid painkiller.

The situation is also serious in the United States, where deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses increased by nearly 30% between April 2020 and April 2021, according to preliminary data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Waly said the new UNDOC strategy will help policymakers introduce effective policies and strategies that can help disrupt the manufacturing and trafficking of synthetic drugs. The plan also provides access to treatment through science-based processes, evidence and knowledge, she added.

“Before, I thought everyone was just waiting for us to die,” said an anonymous drug addict in Europe, who luckily received treatment in time.

Taking quick action on the synthetic drug problem could ensure others don’t feel similarly let down, Waly said.

A major challenge is that synthetic drugs are easy to manufacture and their interception is difficult because the ingredients used to manufacture them are legal. However, governments have tightened regulations on known or suspected precursors.

In the European Union, for example, at least 24 precursor chemicals are controlled. These are divided into four categories, based on the risk they pose relative to their level of legitimate use.

Switch precursors

UNODC’s new strategy comes five months after China’s State Council added at least six precursor chemicals to its regulated list following mounting international pressure.

In 2018, an internet search reportedly identified 100 Chinese companies openly claiming to produce or sell the powerful opioid fentanyl. According to international reports, at least 64 Chinese companies were producing or marketing fentanyl or its analogues by the end of 2020.

Additionally, many entities selling synthetic opioids outdoors on the internet have been linked to companies registered in China, home to the world’s largest pharmaceutical industries. Chinese suppliers are often camouflaged by a complex network of corporate entities.

A 2019 move by Beijing to ban fentanyl-like substances led to a noticeable shift in the types of chemicals openly advertised and marketed on the internet, with uncontrolled substances becoming more prevalent.

But while the 2019 ban made all forms of fentanyl illegal, it did not include all of the precursor chemicals used to make the drug. Prior to 2019, China had already programmed the main fentanyl precursors – NPP and 4-ANPP.

After 2019, the marketing of at least four uncontrolled fentanyl substitutes for NPP and 4-ANPP became increasingly common on the internet, according to reports. Anti-narcotics experts said the change was indicative of creative alterations.

The June State Council press release identified the chemicals added to the restricted list as methyl alpha-acetylphenylacetate, alpha-phenylacetoacetamide, 3,4-MDP-2-P methylglycidic acid , 3,4-MDP-2-P methyl glycidate, benzyl cyanide, and gamma-butyrolactone.

Scalable recipes

In May, UNODC reported that a shipping container that arrived in northwestern Laos was filled with vats filled with 72 tonnes of propionyl chloride. The chemical was destined for an area in northern Myanmar known for the industrial-scale manufacture of synthetic drugs.

The shipment was purchased by a broker based in territory controlled by a militia accused for years of financing itself through the sale of drugs.

Local authorities claimed they had not heard of propionyl chloride. It is not among the 30 precursor chemicals scheduled by the International Narcotics Control Board for use in the manufacture of narcotic drugs or illicit mind-altering substances.

The propionyl chloride left China’s coastal province of Jiangsu on a ship bound for the Thai port city of Laem Chabang. From there it was transported north overland until it reached the Lao district of Huay Xai, just across the Mekong from Thailand.

Experts suspected the cartels were importing unregulated chemicals like propionyl chloride and employing chemists to manufacture methamphetamine. It’s like buying flour to make a pie crust instead of buying a ready-made one.

Authorities often refer to these chemicals as “pre-precursors” or “unscheduled precursors.” They are produced and sold legally but diverted for illicit use at some point in the supply chain.

Some pre-precursors like propionyl chloride have legitimate chemical uses. Other so-called “designer precursors,” meanwhile, are synthesized so that they are chemically distinct enough to avoid government oversight, but serve no purpose other than the manufacture of narcotics.

UNODC has asked the people of Laos for help in the fight against illicit drugs. Given the scale and resilience of the global narcotics trade, authorities need all the help they can get.

Alvin J. Chase