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A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S., May 30, 2017, where individuals were arrested earlier in the day during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RC1B1DEBCC10
Order from Chaos

How synthetic opioids can radically change global illegal drug markets and foreign policy

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Replacing drugs derived from plants (e.g., heroin, cannabis) with synthetic analogues (e.g., fentanyl, spice/K2) could be the most disruptive innovation in the history of the international drug trade. As we explain in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, it may also alter international relations and drug trafficking organizations’ power dynamics in both positive and negative ways.



Jonathan P. Caulkins

Stever Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy - Carnegie Mellon University

Farmers, political power, and counternarcotics operations

Producing plant-based drugs requires control of substantial territory. Poppy production provides livelihoods to hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers and underpins some 30 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, for instance. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of people in the Andes cultivate coca across large geographic areas of limited state reach.

If demand shifts to synthetics, that will undermine some drug trafficking and militant groups, whose power is rooted in controlling cultivation areas—unless they can switch to producing synthetic drugs. Other criminal groups will be empowered because they will be freed from concern about working in war zones, negotiating with developing-country poor, and needing to bribe border control agents. Instead, they can synthesize their product on their own and operate close to its final market.

Myanmar illustrates these dynamics. In the early 2000s, eradication dramatically suppressed poppy cultivation there. Although poppy farmers—such as highland minorities in the Shan state—were severely impoverished, the ethnic insurgencies long funded by drug money did not go bankrupt: Instead, they switched to other trades, such as logging and producing methamphetamine. But producing methamphetamine, a synthetic drug, is not labor-intensive and hence could not employ the immiserated poppy farmers. Facing food insecurity, many desperate farmers switched to poaching, first for subsistence and then to supply wildlife trafficking networks, emptying Myanmar’s forests of wildlife for markets in China and throughout East Asia. Eventually, after political repression in Myanmar loosened and complex ethnic conflicts re-escalated, many farmers returned to cultivating poppy for the production of heroin destined for China, where appetite is increasing not just for wildlife products but also for both synthetic and plant-based illegal drugs.

Or consider Mexico. Poppy farmers in Mexico’s Sinaloa, Guerrero, and Michoacán states could lose market share to synthetic producers, particularly China and India. This could extend to coca farmers in the Andes if cheaper opioids undercut cocaine consumption or if synthetic analogues of cocaine are developed. Already, fentanyl’s spread is upending balances of power among drug trafficking groups and could reshuffle control of illegal drug retail markets in the United States and Mexico, such as between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Nuevo Generación.

Crucially, because producing synthetic opioids is far less labor intensive than cultivating poppy and collecting its resin for heroin, sponsors of synthetic drugs—whether militants or drug traffickers—obtain significantly less political capital than do the sponsors of illegal drug cultivation who protect the livelihoods of many people in a locale. Hence, disrupting synthetic drug-producers in anti-crime operations is less politically costly and carries fewer negative side-effects for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts than does eradicating drug crops. Although producing synthetic drugs can also bring money to impoverished areas and thus produce some political capital—such as in the Wa and Kachin regions of Myanmar or in Mexico’s Michoacán state—counternarcotics efforts against synthetic drug production are less at odds with winning hearts and minds during counterinsurgency efforts. At the same time, precisely because less labor is used in synthetic drugs, the benefits of production in very poor areas are lower.

A man lances a poppy bulb to extract the sap, which will be used to make opium, at a field in the municipality of Heliodoro Castillo, in the mountain region of the state of Guerrero January 3, 2015. According to local media, 42% of the poppies produced in Mexico come from the state of Guerrero, where impoverished farmers in the mountain cultivate opium poppies as cash crop due to the extreme poverty in where they live. Picture taken January 3, 2015. REUTERS/Claudio Vargas (MEXICO - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY POVERTY AGRICULTURE) - GM1EB2A0RFL01
A man lances a poppy bulb to extract the sap, which will be used to make opium, at a field in the municipality of Heliodoro Castillo, in the mountain region of the state of Guerrero January 3, 2015. According to local media, 42 percent of the poppies produced in Mexico come from the state of Guerrero, where impoverished farmers in the mountain cultivate opium poppies as cash crop due to the extreme poverty in where they live. Picture taken January 3, 2015. REUTERS/Claudio Vargas.

New producers, new trafficking, and different smugglers

In addition to requiring only a small labor force and minimal territorial control, producing synthetic drugs is more discreet. Production can be confined to very small places, such as a house or factory. Finding drug labs hidden inside or alongside legal drug factories, such as in China and India, is much tougher than locating poppy fields.

Moreover, synthetics can be produced almost anywhere. Places such as Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa—the last already a robust producer of synthetic drugs—can quickly become the new global hotspots of production and international controversy should the current leaders be dethroned.

Sometimes the new synthetics are more dangerous than traditional plant-based drugs. For example, synthetic cannabinoids cause harms that cannabis does not, and fentanyls are much more potent and pose much greater risk of overdose death than does heroin—even though heroin is already quite dangerous in and of itself.

This also reduces the power of traffickers—the power to corrupt.

A market shift toward synthetics can also sideline traditional smugglers. Fentanyl, in particular, is highly compact, so large numbers of doses fit in an envelope or package sent by mail or parcel delivery service—a transportation technology available to any mom-and-pop outfit. 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. 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.

All of these effects will tend to drive drug prices down. Declining prices push consumption up, but less than proportionally, which would tend to shrink revenues of drug traffickers. This also reduces the power of traffickers—the power to corrupt.

Demand for black-market opioids will be stoked in countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to market opioids aggressively for treating chronic pain at home. That increase would likely more than offset the previous effect, increasing the dollar value of illegal opioid markets in those countries. But since not all countries will allow pharmaceutical companies a free hand, it is unclear whether global black market opioid revenues will rise or fall.

No global drug market, no global drug policy

The rise of synthetics also has the potential to fragment the global drug market and hence alter major aspects of international relations and U.S. foreign policy. In one possible scenario, drug users in affluent countries—where heroin has been relatively expensive—would come to predominantly consume synthetic opioids.

That might leave traditional plant-based production countries such as Afghanistan and Myanmar primarily supplying neighbors, such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China. Synthetics are less likely to make inroads in those areas because with proximity to production and laxer enforcement across very porous borders, heroin is far cheaper in Pakistan and Central Asia than in Western Europe or the United States, reducing the market advantages of synthetics.

If synthetics increase international drug market segmentation, the United States may lose interest in promoting drug crop eradication. This would remove a decades-old source of tension, paving the way to more positive relationships within the Americas.

Conversely, new regional policemen may emerge, as China and Russia have already in Central and Southeast Asia. Such regionalization could exacerbate the global drug policy dissensus, exaggerating differences between hawkish countries in Asia and the Middle East as well as Russia, and more liberal countries in Europe, Canada, and Latin America.

If U.S. consumption shifts from plant-based to synthetic drugs and U.S. policy does not give up on source country control efforts altogether, those efforts will become even more complicated. In contrast to Latin American drug-producing countries, it will be much harder for the United States to persuade synthetic-drug-producing countries such as China and India to crack down on their illegal production for multiple reasons, not the least being their far greater power relative to the United States and other countries where they may ship illegal synthetics. Also, U.S. interests with China and India are far more complex, and include global geopolitical competition, nuclear security, counterterrorism, other security interests, trade, and global warming. Thus, a drug control agenda with such countries will need to compete against vital national interests to a far greater extent than is the case with Colombia, Peru, or Myanmar.

That does not mean that an international drug-control agenda is doomed. The Obama administration’s engagement with China laid the groundwork for China’s decision to ban the production of four variants of fentanyl in March 2017. However, amidst its tense relations with China, the Trump administration has failed to productively expand that dialogue. Adequate drug-control discussions with India are yet to begin.

The responsible user of illegal drugs

Any such fragmentation of the global drug market and shifts in consumer preferences are of course not going to be uniform. Some users may always prefer plant-based drugs, even if they are more expensive. As in the case of legal products, consumer preferences for illegal drugs are shaped by a myriad of factors, fashions, fads, and advertising. Although supply was abundant and illegal distribution networks readily available, drug users in Western Europe stayed away from cocaine and stuck to heroin and methamphetamines for two decades later than users in the United States. And despite the availability of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, and synthetic methamphetamines, the fad of cocaine is taking off in China.

Thus, even if synthetics take off en masse in affluent countries, some hipster or conscientious drug users may stick to plant-based recreational highs, perhaps only demanding that their drugs are organically grown and labeled “conflict-, terrorism-, and deforestation-, and water-depletion-free, as well as fair illegal trade.”

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