The U.S. Department of State plays a key role within the U.S. whole-of-government effort to address the nation’s opioid epidemic, aiming to stop illicit opioids from being produced overseas and trafficked into the United States. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of U.S. overdose cases involving synthetic opioids increased by nearly 640 percent. Over 42,000 Americans died from overdosing on opioids in 2016 alone, and preliminary data for 2017 is even more alarming. Due to the robust interagency efforts the number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has begun to plateau – the trend of rising overdose deaths has started to bend in the right direction. But much more work remains to be done.
A confluence of dangerous new trends in the transnational production, sales, and trafficking of illicit drugs has contributed to this tragic climb in deaths. These trends are fostering the increased use of heroin and heroin laced with synthetic opioids like fentanyl, often without the user knowing it. Fentanyl and its analogues, sourced largely from overseas, can be fifty to one hundred times more potent than heroin, with as little as two milligrams being potentially lethal.
The vast majority of heroin used in the United States comes from Mexico, and fentanyl generally originates from sources in China. These drugs are trafficked into the United States through a variety of routes, including overland across the Southwest border, and through online orders that are shipped by international mail and express consignment services. Because these drugs originate almost exclusively from overseas, stopping these drugs from reaching the United States is a critical U.S. foreign policy priority. Taking advantage of the full set of diplomatic and foreign assistance tools, the State Department’s INL Bureau leads U.S. efforts to partner with foreign governments to reduce the availability of these illicit drugs and their precursor chemicals.
In addition to ongoing programs to fight opioids, the State Department and INL are developing a forward-looking strategy to disrupt the new synthetic drug supply chain. In this new reality, drugs are produced in clandestine labs, bought and sold through online marketplaces, financed with virtual currencies, and shipped globally in small, hard-to-detect packages direct to buyers and drug entrepreneurs. The stealth and volume of these micro-trafficking networks pose a formidable challenge to traditional counternarcotics approaches. To meet these challenges, INL is thinking critically about how to better keep up with the dynamic threats we are combating through a number of new initiatives, including:
- Updating our international drug control system to keep pace with the proliferation of new psychoactive substances;
- Expanding global capacity to capture and share advance electronic data for international mail parcels destined for the United States;
- Increasing support for global drug early warning and information sharing systems;
- Expanding the provision of technical assistance in illicit substance detection, forensics, and cyber investigation; and
- Sharing U.S. expertise on prevention, treatment, and recovery programs to reduce drug demand in foreign jurisdictions.
Meeting the challenges posed by illicit opioids requires partnerships by a range of actors: foreign governments, law enforcement agencies, the private sector, and multilateral institutions. The State Department is dedicated to advancing this cooperation to stem the flow of opioids trafficked into the United States and ultimately, to saving lives.