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Author Topic: Synthetic Drugs Will Change the Global Drug Trade Forever  (Read 5689 times)

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Synthetic Drugs Will Change the Global Drug Trade Forever
« on: September 06, 2019, 07:01:41 PM »

Synthetic Drugs Will Change the Global Drug Trade Forever

Aug 20 2019

Drug traffickers thrive on their ability to penetrate national borders, but a new era of toxic, man-made highs could dissolve those boundaries and transform the global drug trade.

Underneath a pool table in a house in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta was once a trapdoor opened by a lever disguised as a water faucet outside. The door led to a tunnel that burrowed beneath the border fence and emerged, 200 feet later, inside a house in Arizona.

Dug in the late 80s on the orders of the now jailed Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman—who back then was known as “El Rapido” because he could get drugs into the United States so quickly—it was the first of many tunnels built by the cartels to successfully smuggle tons of cocaine, heroin, and cannabis underneath the U.S. border and into the world’s single largest drug market.

Tunnels are just one among an arsenal of tricks that have been used to get drugs from A to B, from submarines and carrier pigeons to crates of chili peppers and cocaine-molded tea sets. This innovation is spurred by an unwritten law of the current global drug economy: The better a country is at bolstering its borders and limiting the drug trade, the more interested the most successful traffickers will be. Why? Because better border enforcement means higher risk, and also higher profits.

“The paradox of the war on drugs is that the harder governments push the fight, the higher drug prices become to compensate for the greater risks,” wrote the Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker and his colleague Kevin Murphy in a critique of the war on drugs published in 2013. “That leads to larger profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. Higher prices enable some traffickers to make a lot of money if they avoid being caught, if they operate on a large enough scale, and if they can reduce competition from other traffickers.”

The idea of keeping drugs “out” of a country is entirely built around how drugs have traditionally been produced and sold. Much of the global drug economy is truly global: Plants—whether they be coca, cannabis, peyote, opium poppies, or anything else—are grown and refined in specific source countries, generally in the plants’ native territories. They’re then smuggled across well-worn routes and through border crossings to consumers in other, often wealthier nations. Today, most drugs seized by national authorities are interdicted at the border, not by police on the streets.

The battle between the authorities and drug traffickers is now more of an arms race than a game of cat and mouse. The global war on drugs has enriched organized crime around the globe; efforts to curb the drug business, at huge financial cost, have merely ended with more drug routes, more drugs, and more deaths. It’s no wonder drug trafficking is the lifeblood of organized crime, and that the market in drug trafficking now has an estimated annual global value of between $426 and $652 billion.

Except the whole concept that underpins the global drug trade—authorities tighten the border, traffickers find new ways around it—is being challenged by a new way of doing things. Despite record production levels of plant-based drugs, and a progression in some countries toward legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis a new version of the age-old drug trade, revolving around an increasingly troubling set of substances, is in the ascendancy.

Drug policy experts and law enforcement have all recorded a boom time for synthetic drugs, which are made entirely in labs that often mimic the effects of plant-based drugs, but which are being mass-produced in chemical factories, marketed online, and often smuggled undercover via the global postal system. These man-made highs include well-known banned substances such as methamphetamine, MDMA, LSD, and ketamine; a vast array of new psychoactive substances (NPS) including cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids; black market medicines such as fentanyl and tranquilizers, and dangerous or impure analogues and substitutes of the above.

Last year, several Florida men were convicted of drug supply, production, and money laundering after selling hundreds of thousands of counterfeit oxycodone pills. They were making so much money they found it hard to clean the proceeds, with one of the men buying a spread of luxury cars including a BMW, an Audi R8, an Aston Martin, a Bentley, and a Maserati. They’d made the counterfeit pills with pill presses and fentanyl ordered from China, allowing them to live large without any of the overhead and infrastructure of more traditional drug operations.

This is the future of the drugs trade. In a co-authored blog on the Brookings Institution’s website last year, Jonathan Caulkins and his fellow authors explained how a shift toward synthetics such as fentanyl could “sideline” traditional smugglers.

“There is no need for sophisticated criminal enterprises with the wherewithal to physically carry bulky material across international borders—a capability that often involves violence or corruption,” they wrote. “Although chemists need to be trained and precursor agents matter, the know-how and technology are hardly prohibitive and, importantly, are not generally enhanced by carrying or using high-powered weapons. [The synthetic trade requires] only a small labor force and minimal territorial control.”

Manufactured anywhere, from DIY bathroom labs to huge chemical factories, synthetic drugs are cheaper and easier to make than cocaine and heroin because there is no reliance on the cultivation of plants. Factories can pivot from making one drug to another—including the legal precursor chemicals used in banned substances—in days, quickly adapting to market demand. Because of the way they are produced and trafficked, they can be made, shipped and consumed in a relative instant and are more affordable for both suppliers and customers.

Thomas Pietschmann, a drug trend analyst at the U.N.’s Office of Drugs and Crime, said “the most marked increase in the drugs seized over the past two decades has clearly been in synthetic drugs.” He added that while the global popularity of cannabis means that plant-based drugs are still way more prevalent than synthetics, seizures of lab-formed substances have skyrocketed compared with drugs derived from plants.

Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University and the author of Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, put it more simply: “The future is synthetic.” Andreas said this will have all sorts of repercussions for border controls. “It is already extraordinarily difficult to interdict a portable, durable, and profitable product such as heroin or cocaine. But even more concentrated and potent synthetic drugs make reliance on border interdiction as a cornerstone of drug control even more irrational. Focusing more on demand than on supply becomes more urgent than ever.”

A growing mishmash of cheap drugs with unpredictable side effects are scraping the bottom of the narco barrel, such as the meth-like sisa in Greece and heroin-like pajdo in Serbia. Cathinones such as mephedrone (also known as bath salts) were initially popular with young people in the UK because they were a bit like cocaine but cheap and legal to buy online, and now are being more widely used by Europe’s poor. The drug has a big following in Russia, Georgia, Hungary, India, and among the Roma community in Romania (where it’s called legale).

It is the poor who have also taken up smoking synthetic cannabinoids, better known as spice. It’s a class of drug that has also become increasingly toxic because of chemical tweaking to avoid the law, and is now used as a cheap alternative to heroin. Like all synthetic drugs, spice is super profitable, even for those halfway up the chain. An analysis of online spice sellers in Europe by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that vendors spending between €6,000 and €8,000 ($6,700 to $8,900) on assembling and selling their products could earn €157,000 ($176,000).

In the U.S., it is America’s poor and most vulnerable citizens who, with no purchasing power, are unwittingly being dosed with deadly fentanyl. It is the country’s rural poor who are most likely to use methamphetamine, which grew in popularity because it could be made and sold locally, without relying on expensive city coke dealers.

In Asia, methamphetamine pills—known as yaba or “madness drug”—with a mix of 20 percent meth and 80 percent caffeine, are the junk drugs for the masses, used by workers to toil harder and for longer hours and by young people as a cheap high. It was meth’s ubiquity that prompted President Duterte’s murderous war on the drug trade in the Philippines in 2016.

In China, a country with a long history of opium use and very little open data on its drug habits, analysts have revealed to VICE that in the last five years the number of registered heroin users has plummeted, while meth users have soared. The meth problem has leaked out to Bangladesh in the west, Japan to the east, and south to the Republic of Korea and Oceania. Use of meth is rising in Europe, too, specifically in Germany, Greece, Norway, Czechia, and Slovakia.

The U.N. has warned that the global rise of methamphetamine—the world’s most prevalent illegal synthetic drug—has been “unprecedented” and “remarkable,” with global seizure quantities growing more than six times since 2008. Why? Meth is highly addictive, for one thing. But it’s also a whole lot easier to build an illicit lab than to start up a coca plantation.

In some regions, synthetic drugs are supplanting their plant-created cousins.

In the Golden Triangle, the lawless Southeast Asian opium-producing zone where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the Ruak and Mekong rivers, the poppy fields run by the 20,000-strong rebel United Wa State Army from Myanmar have been sidelined and replaced by a huge network of methamphetamine labs in the country’s Shan State.

In January of last year, police found a record-breaking 30 million methamphetamine pills and 3,800 pounds of crystal meth alongside some heroin and caffeine powder in an abandoned house in Shan State. The synthetic drug is simply a more lucrative and high volume product for the Wa. As a result, Myanmar has, according to the U.N., morphed into the world’s largest producer of meth. In 2018, 745 million meth pills were seized in the region, compared with 320 million in 2016. Because of the glut of the drug in the area, methamphetamine is now the main drug of concern in most countries in Southeast Asia.

Meth is also being produced in Nigeria, India, Iraq, and Iran. The last country’s output has sparked a meth spike in Turkey and Russia, and in Afghanistan (the world’s biggest opium producer), where heroin users are now switching to the synthetic stimulant they call shisheh. In Europe, Holland has joined Czechia in becoming a hub for meth production. In May, Dutch authorities raided a meth lab on a river boat that contained 300 liters of meth oil.

Fentanyl has infiltrated a growing portion of North America’s heroin supply and is now also the hidden mixer in knockoff prescription opioids. The devastation being caused in North America by fentanyl is well documented.

Mexican cartels anticipated the synthetic takeover, and have already pivoted from producing cannabis and heroin to manufacturing most of America’s methamphetamine, as well as producing and importing most of its fentanyl. In February, VICE’s Deborah Bonello described how in Sinaloa, El Chapo’s home state, producers have been switching from growing opium to making fentanyl because it is cheaper and its potency-to-weight ratio makes it easier to conceal and smuggle.

But to gauge the true scale of this expanding industry you have to go to the world’s synthetic drug cauldron; a country where you can get a near limitless menu of illegal highs, pharmaceuticals, and precursor chemicals made to order in bulk with no questions asked: China.

On January 3, 2015, Bailey Henke, an 18-year-old law enforcement student, died after smoking fentanyl with friends at an apartment in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It was the second such death in six months in Grand Forks, a small city 80 miles north of Fargo, at a time when the fentanyl crisis was just beginning to reveal itself. A determined, two-year hunt for the suppliers led local detectives on a darknet trail to an international drug ring based in China, which was manufacturing an array of synthetic drugs and using the postal system to smuggle them into America.

Through a network of U.S. suppliers, investigators traced the fentanyl back to Zaron Bio-Tech, a Shanghai company through which “enormous quantities” of fentanyl were sent by post into the U.S. from China via Canada, according to the U.S. government. The drugs were manufactured in four labs and sold to distributors over the internet. To hide their financial transactions, suppliers along the chain used offshore accounts and third parties to move money, as well as encrypted communication apps to discuss business. It was drug smuggling, but where international borders may as well not have existed.

But to gauge the true scale of this expanding industry you have to go to the world’s synthetic drug cauldron; a country where you can get a near limitless menu of illegal highs, pharmaceuticals, and precursor chemicals made to order in bulk with no questions asked: China.

Despite the growth in the last decade of the online and postal trade in drugs, this case marked a precedent in the evolution of this new drug smuggling era. In 2017, the criminal group’s alleged bosses, Jian Zhang (nicknamed “Hong Kong Zaron”) and Yan Xiaobing, became the first China-based individuals to be designated Consolidated Priority Organization Targets (CPOTs) by the U.S. government—reserved for the most prolific international drug trafficking and money laundering organizations.

The two remain at large, although 32 of their co-conspirators in the U.S. and Canada have been either charged or jailed. Also still at large are the second pair of Chinese suppliers to be made CPOTs: Fujing Zheng and his father Guanghua, who are accused of making and shipping fentanyl and 250 other synthetic drugs to at least 25 countries and 37 U.S. states from their business in Shanghai.

The U.S. government has identified China as the “principal source” not only for the fentanyl that has created the U.S. overdose crisis, but also for the precursor chemicals used by Mexican gangs to make methamphetamine. The same goes for the meth labs in the Golden Triangle, which are all equipped with Chinese precursor chemicals, which end up going back to China in the form of finished meth. China is also a key source of fake prescription pills, and is where most of the world’s new psychoactive substances are produced.

And as these kingpins find new ways to skip border interdiction, American authorities find themselves largely unable to respond. The U.S. has no extradition agreement with China, and the U.S. does not have sway over Beijing like it had over the Colombian government’s attempts to tackle its major cocaine traffickers. The U.S. cannot send troops and military hardware to China to fight drug traffickers. And the more Trump rubs China the wrong way, the less likely it will assist in clamping down on people like Hong Kong Zaron. In the new drug trade, sucking up to China could prove more fruitful in stemming drugs coming into America than building a Mexican wall.

The world’s second biggest economy—a nation that, ironically, was forced to import British opium or be bombed by gunboats during the Opium Wars in the mid 19th century—could soon become the world’s biggest illegal drug exporter.

“[China] is home to one of the largest and most poorly regulated chemical industries in the world,” explained a 2019 RAND report on drug policy in Asia. “Lack of regulatory oversight allows unscrupulous businesses to market and export potent synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl. … It is an ideal environment to conceal production and export of synthetic psychoactives, including opioids.”

The report says China’s chemical exports make up one-third of all global shipments. It says the U.S. government estimates there are 400,000 chemical manufacturers and distributors in China, “some of which operate illegally and produce a variety of chemicals, including drug precursors and compounds frequently used to manufacture psychoactive substances.” Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for the U.N.’s drug office, said that widespread industry corruption in China is contributing to the illicit manufacture and export of synthetic drugs and precursors.

Part of the boom comes down to the significantly better profit margins on synthetic drugs. Analysis in the RAND report found that for illicit drug suppliers, “fentanyl’s potency and price make it an economically attractive alternative to heroin.” It said that, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “one kilogram of fentanyl, after being pressed into pills, could generate between $10 and $20 million in retail sales. After factoring in the minimal $3,500 per kilogram of product purchased online from China, dealers are attracted to the drug’s profitability. In comparison, heroin wholesales at $50,000 to $80,000 per kilogram and is a fraction of the potency, generating a profit of perhaps $200,000.”

Unlike coca or poppy growers in Colombia and Afghanistan, Chinese chemical companies openly advertise their wares on English language websites on the clear web, with discounts for bulk purchases. They also sell fentanyl pill start-up kits including pill presses, bonding agents, pill casings, and chemical dyes.

“It’s a bit of a nightmare how operationally simple it is for a single individual to be able to introduce so much fentanyl into the market using China and the internet,” tweeted Bryce Pardo, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “At this rate with several years of declining life expectancy in the U.S. it’s not unreasonable to categorize this as a mass poisoning.”

With plant-based drugs, users have to worry about purity and dosage, but you usually get the plant you asked for. In the freeform chemistry world of synthetics, it’s impossible for the average user to know what they have paid for unless they get it tested.

And when authorities ban a plant, that’s pretty much it. But banning synthetic drugs means banning specific chemical formulas, which has produced a toxic game of whack-a-mole where a drug’s chemistry has been tweaked to sidestep the law, making the resulting product increasingly toxic and unpredictable. These toxic drugs are actually the inevitable by-product of prohibition because, as happened with transporting whiskey as opposed to beer in Prohibition-era America, there’s more profit in drugs that have a high potency-to-weight ratio.

Fentanyl and its analogues, active at tens of micrograms, are some of the most potent substances ever developed. This is why they can be sent by post, because small amounts can be turned into large profits. Carfentanil, an analogue of fentanyl that entered the global drug stream after China ordered a clampdown on fentanyl, is used to knock out elephants, and is 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It’s classified as a chemical weapon by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

But banning synthetic drugs means banning specific chemical formulas, which has produced a toxic game of whack-a-mole where a drug’s chemistry has been tweaked to sidestep the law, making the resulting product increasingly toxic and unpredictable.

The new era of the drug trade fits perfectly into the new world order. Like processed food, it’s plastic drugs for the masses, and the real thing for the rich. In rich Europe, there is 50 to 70 percent pure cocaine for £70 (around $87); in poor Europe it’s a mash-up of a range of synthetic cathinones and cutting agents from a lab in China for less than half the price.

This burgeoning illegal synthetic drug industry also encompasses the black market manufacture and sale of diverted or counterfeit pharmaceuticals—a vast array of painkillers, stimulants, and tranquilizers used as cheap highs by poor citizens or by people in countries without adequate healthcare. Health experts are sounding the alarm about the damage being done by prescription synthetics, for example the tranquilizer Xanax in the U.S. and UK, and the stimulant Captagon, a tablet made of amphetamine and theophylline, a stimulant similar to caffeine, in the Middle East. Overall, it’s a gray market worth almost as much as the entire illegal drug trade.

“The synthetic revolution is not a consumer-driven change; quite the opposite,” said Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0. “Most heroin users would not choose fentanyl, as the effects are shorter-lived and less enjoyable, plus the risks of death are far higher; likewise there has never been a drug that properly replicates the effects of cocaine. And synthetic cannabinoids have gained a foothold only among the poorest members of society, while boutique, Insta-ready cannabis dispensaries are charging eye-watering prices for niche bud.”

For the authorities, it’s all their nightmares rolled into one. As the drug trade fragments, it becomes harder to grasp. Law enforcement was failing badly with the old-school drug trade, but the onset of the new era has made it even more of a needle-in-a haystack problem. The inability of U.S. border forces to stem the amount of fentanyl coming into the country, even in the face of such a huge death toll, is testimony to this.

If these trends continue, the production, sale, and consumption of synthetic drugs could eclipse that of plant-based drugs. Borders would become even less relevant to traffickers and their profits while compromising law enforcement’s ability to monitor or regulate drug supply via seizures at borders.

All this would make the drug market increasingly mirror that of other consumer goods, with the added sting in the tail that these Frankenstein substances will only grow more deadly. Which raises the question, as the clock ticks: How long are we willing to endure the costs of a poorly regulated, harmful, and violent economy, as we hurtle toward a toxic psychoactive trash dystopia, before taking the step toward proper regulation?
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