Fentanyl Could Uproot Traditional Drug Trade

By Victoria Kim 05/24/18

"A small gang with a single talented chemist can economically undercut poppy-based opioid production,” says one expert.

Image: 
Member of the DEA's fentanyl response team examining fentanyl
Member of the DEA's fentanyl response team examining fentanyl at a crime scene.

Are plant-based drugs becoming less important?

Traditionally, most illicit drugs—cannabis, cocaine, and heroin—all derive from a plant. They require acres of arable land, and the cooperation of farmers, producers, and traffickers.

But drugs like fentanyl require little more than a chemist, chemical ingredients, and a laboratory setting.

Thus, fentanyl has the potential to “permanently alter illegal drug markets and international relations along with them,” according to Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University.

In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, Humphreys and two colleagues Jonathan Caulkins and Vanda Felbab-Brown predict that the “world is on the cusp of a global opioid epidemic”—as drug companies abandon the United States and Canada for Asia and Europe, “repeating the tactics that created the crisis in the first place.” 

For example, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, wasting no time at all, has been promoting the use of painkillers in Latin America, Asia the Middle East, and Africa, the Los Angeles Times reported December 2016.

The aggressive marketing of painkillers coupled with the growing illicit use of fentanyl “could mark a public health disaster of historic proportions,” the authors warn.

Not only heroin, but morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone all rely on the opium poppy to exist. Fentanyl does not.

Just a “small gang with a single talented chemist can thus economically undercut poppy-based opioid production,” writes Humphreys in the Washington Post.

This has the potential to alter the dynamic and traditional power role of a drug producer/trafficker. Writes Humphreys: “They find themselves in a weaker position because they no longer gain the political capital they once did from providing plentiful drug-production jobs to local residents.”

Fentanyl also has the potential to weaken anti-American insurgencies in drug-producing countries, according to Humphreys. Poppy farmers had a reason to cooperate and work with the Taliban, for example, against the United States that was trying to eradicate drug crops, their livelihood.

The spread of fentanyl, and its potential to worsen the global opioid crisis, is exacerbated by its higher potency.

“Fentanyl, being enormously more potent per gram, is so compact that people with no particular smuggling expertise can ship it overseas in a regular-size piece of mail with little chance of it being detected.”

Or, because it requires little more than a laboratory setting, producers can bypass the hassle of smuggling the drug altogether by setting up shop in the countries in which they’re meant to be sold, Humphreys says.

He and his colleagues suggest, simply, that governments should “couple efforts to treat addicted individuals with efforts to curb supply” if they are to push back on the impending global opioid crisis.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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