The Narco No Longer Needs To Cross Borders: Welcome To The New World Of Synthetic Drugs

United States, (Vice). Under a pool table of a house in Agua Prieta, a Mexican city on the border with the United States, there was once a secret door that opened with a lever that appeared to be a water tap. The door led to a tunnel that passed under the border fence and led to a house in Arizona 60 meters later.

The tunnel, built in the late 80s by order of the now imprisoned head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who was then known as "The Fast" because he could take drugs to the United States in a jiffy, was the first of many tunnels built by the cartels to successfully smuggle tons of cocaine, heroin and cannabis across the American border and introduce them to the world's largest drug market.


The tunnels are only part of the arsenal of tricks that have been used to carry drugs from point A to point B; It has been used from submarines and carrier pigeons to boxes of chili peppers and tea sets molded with cocaine. These innovations have been encouraged by an unwritten law of the current world drug economy: the better a country is to strengthen its borders and limit drug trafficking, the more interested the more successful drug traffickers will be. Why? Because having better border control means greater risk and also greater profits.

"The paradox of the war on drugs is that the more governments strive to combat drug trafficking, the more drug prices rise to offset the risks they face when trafficking them," wrote Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and his colleague Kevin Murphy in a critique of the war on drugs published in 2013. “That generates greater profits for traffickers who avoid being punished. High prices allow some traffickers to earn a lot of money if they do not get caught, if they operate on a large enough scale and can reduce competition with other traffickers. ”

The idea of ​​keeping drugs "out" of a country is built on the way drugs have been traditionally produced and sold. Much of the global drug economy is really global: plants, whether coca, cannabis, peyote, poppy or any other, are grown and refined in specific countries of origin, usually in the native territories of the plants. They are then trafficked through known routes and borders to reach consumers from other nations, often richer. Today, most drugs seized by national authorities are intercepted at the border, not by police in the streets.

Synthetic drugs are cheaper and easier to produce than cocaine and heroin because it is not dependent on plant cultivation. Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia;

The battle between the authorities and drug traffickers is now more an arms race than a cat and mouse game. The global war on drugs has enriched organized crime worldwide; Efforts to curb the drug business, at a huge financial cost, have simply ended with the creation of more routes to traffic, more drugs and more deaths. It is not surprising that drug trafficking is the vital element of organized crime, and that the drug trafficking market now has an estimated annual global value of between 426 and 652 billion dollars.

The whole concept that sustains the world drug trade – authorities control the border and traffickers find new ways to avoid them – is being challenged by a new way of doing things. Despite record levels of production of plant-based drugs, and progress towards the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis in some countries, a new version of drug trafficking that revolves around an increasingly problematic set of substances is in ascent.

Both drug policy experts and the authorities have registered a boom in synthetic drugs, which often mimic the effects of plant-based drugs, but are mass produced in chemical factories, marketed through the internet and frequently trafficked to through the global mail system. These man-made drugs include known substances, such as methamphetamines, MDMA, LSD and ketamine; a wide range of new psychoactive substances, which include catinones and synthetic cannabinoids; black market medicines, such as fentanyl and tranquilizers, and analogues and substitutes for the above, which are impure and sometimes dangerous.

Last year, several men in Florida were convicted of drug trafficking, production and money laundering after selling thousands of counterfeit oxycodone pills. They were making so much money that they found it difficult to hide the profits, (one of them bought several luxury cars, including a BMW, an Audi R8, an Aston Martin, a Bentley and a Maserati). The fake pills had been made with tablet and fentanyl presses that ordered China, which made them millionaires, as they did not have to incur the costs and infrastructure of the more traditional drug operations.

This is the future of drug trafficking. Last year, in a blog on the website of the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Caulkins and his colleagues explained how a shift towards synthetic products such as fentanyl could "put aside" traditional smugglers.

"There is no need to have sophisticated criminal companies with the means to transport material in large volumes across international borders, something that usually involves violence or corruption," they wrote. “Although chemists and precursor agents must be trained are important, knowledge and technology are barely prohibitive and – even more importantly – generally do not improve when carrying or using high caliber weapons. (Synthetic trade only requires) a small workforce and minimal territorial control. ”

Synthetic drugs – which can be manufactured anywhere, from home laboratories to large chemical factories – are cheaper and easier to produce than cocaine and heroin because it is not dependent on plant cultivation. Factories can go from making one drug to another in days – including legal precursor chemicals used in banned substances – quickly adapting to market demand. Due to the way they are produced and trafficked, they can be prepared, shipped and consumed relatively quickly and are more affordable for both suppliers and customers.

Thomas Pietschmann, a drug trend analyst at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says "the most marked increase in drug seizures in the last two decades has clearly been synthetic drugs." He added that while the global popularity of cannabis means that plant-based drugs are still much more prevalent than synthetic drugs, seizures of laboratory-created substances have skyrocketed compared to those of plant-derived drugs.

Much of the global drug economy is truly global: plants, whether coca, cannabis, peyote, poppy or any other, are grown and refined in specific countries of origin. Photo: Cuartoscuro

Peter Andreas, Professor of International Studies at Brown University and author of Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, puts it more simply: "The future is synthetic." Andreas says this will have all kinds of repercussions for border controls. “It is already extraordinarily difficult to block a portable, durable and cost-effective product such as heroin or cocaine. But more concentrated and powerful synthetic drugs make trust in border prohibition as the cornerstone of drug control even more irrational. Focusing more on demand than on supply is becoming more urgent than ever. ”

A growing mix of cheap drugs with unpredictable side effects is coming to the narco. In Greece there is for example the armhole, similar to methamphetamine, and in Serbia there is the straw, similar to heroin. Catinones, commonly known as bath salts, were initially popular among young people in the United Kingdom because they were like cocaine but cheap and legally purchased on the Internet, and are now more used by the poor in Europe. They also have many followers in Russia, Georgia, Hungary, India and among the Roma community in Romania (where they are called legale).

The poor are those who have also started smoking synthetic cannabinoids, better known as spice. It is a kind of drug that has also become increasingly toxic due to chemical adjustments to avoid the law, and is now used as a cheap alternative to heroin. Like all synthetic drugs, the spice is super profitable, even for those in the middle of the chain. An analysis of online spice sellers in Europe by the European Center for Drug and Addiction Monitoring found that sellers who spend between $ 6,700 and $ 8,900 to assemble and sell their products could earn up to $ 176,000.

In the United States, the poorest and most vulnerable citizens are those who involuntarily receive a fatal dose of fentanyl. The country's poor rural population is the most likely to consume methamphetamine, which increased in popularity because it can be manufactured and sold locally, without relying on the city's expensive cocaine dealers.

In Asia, methamphetamine pills, known as yaba or “madness drug” —which are a mixture of 20 percent methamphetamine and 80 percent caffeine—, are junk drugs for the masses: workers use them to strain more and for more hours and young people to get high cheap. In 2016, the widespread presence of methamphetamine was what caused President Duterte's bloody war against drug trafficking in the Philippines. In China, a country with a long history of opium use and very little transparency of data on drug use, analysts revealed to VICE that in the last five years the number of registered heroin users has decreased, while users of methamphetamine have increased. The methamphetamine problem has leaked to Bangladesh in the west, Japan to the east and south to the Republic of Korea and Oceania. Methamphetamine use is also increasing in Europe, specifically in Germany, Greece, Norway, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The UN warned that the global increase in methamphetamine – the most common illegal synthetic drug in the world – has been "unprecedented" and "remarkable," as global overdose seizures have grown more than six times since 2008. Why? On the one hand, because methamphetamine is highly addictive. But it is also much easier to build an illicit laboratory than to start a coca plantation.

In some regions, synthetic drugs are replacing their cousins ​​of plant origin.

In the Golden Triangle, the illegal opium producing area of ​​Southeast Asia, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar are located on the Ruak and Mekong rivers, the poppy fields run by the Wa Kingdom State Army have been set aside and replaced by a huge network of methamphetamine laboratories in Shan state.

The idea of ​​keeping drugs "out" of a country is built on the way drugs have been traditionally produced and sold. Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia;

In January of last year, police found 30 million methamphetamine pills and 1,700 kilos of glass along with some heroin and caffeine powder in an abandoned house in Shan state. Synthetic drugs are a more lucrative and larger product for Wa. As a result, according to the UN, Myanmar has become the largest producer of methamphetamine in the world. In 2018, 745 million methamphetamine pills were seized in the region, compared to 320 million in 2016. Due to the abundance of the drug in the area, methamphetamine is now the main substance of concern in most countries of the Southeast Asian.

Methamphetamine is also being produced in Nigeria, India, Iraq and Iran. The production of the latter country has caused an increase in methamphetamine consumption in Turkey and Russia, and in Afghanistan (the world's largest opium producer), where heroin users are switching to synthetic stimulants, which they call shisheh. In Europe, the Netherlands has joined the Czech Republic to become a center for methamphetamine production. In May, the Dutch authorities raided a methamphetamine laboratory on a riverboat containing 300 liters of methamphetamine oil.

Fentanyl has infiltrated a growing portion of North America's heroin supply and is now also the hidden mixer in prescription opioids. The devastation that fentanyl is causing in North America is well documented.

The Mexican cartels anticipated the takeover of synthetic drugs, and they have gone from producing cannabis and heroin to manufacturing most of the United States methamphetamine, as well as producing and importing most of their fentanyl. In February, VICE Deborah Bonello described how in Sinaloa, the home state of Chapo, producers have moved from opium cultivation to fentanyl manufacturing because it is cheaper and its power / weight ratio makes it easier to hide and smuggle

However, to measure the true scale of this expanding industry, you must go to the cauldron of synthetic drugs in the world, a country where you can get an almost unlimited menu of illegal drugs, pharmaceuticals and chemical precursors that you can order in bulk without questioning. Some: China.

On January 3, 2015, Bailey Henke, an 18-year-old police student, died after smoking fentanyl with friends in an apartment in Grand Forks, North Dakota. It was the second such death in six months in Grand Forks, a small city 128 km north of Fargo, at a time when the fentanyl crisis was just beginning to reveal itself. A two-year search to find suppliers led local detectives to a dark international drug network based in China, which manufactured a variety of synthetic drugs and used the postal system to smuggle them into the United States.

Through a network of US suppliers, researchers tracked the fentanyl to Zaron Bio-Tech, a Shanghai company through which "huge amounts" of the drug were sent by mail through Canada, according to the American government. The drugs were manufactured in four laboratories and sold to distributors online. To hide their financial transactions, providers used accounts abroad and third parties to move money, as well as encrypted communication applications to discuss business. It was a drug trade in which international borders may not have existed.

Despite the growth of drug trafficking online and by mail in the last decade, this case set a precedent in the evolution of this new era of drug smuggling. In 2017, the alleged heads of the criminal group, Jian Zhang (nicknamed “Hong Kong Zaron”) and Yan Xiaobing, became the first individuals based in China to be designated as Consolidated Priority Organization Objectives (CPOT) English) by the United States Government. The two remain free, although 32 of their accomplices in the United States and Canada have been charged or imprisoned. The second pair of Chinese suppliers that will become CPOT are also released: Fujing Zheng and his father Guanghua, accused of manufacturing and shipping fentanyl and 250 other synthetic drugs to at least 25 countries and 37 states in the United States from their businesses in Shanghai

The United States Government has identified China as the "main source" not only of the fentanyl that has created the overdose crisis in the country, but also of the chemical precursors used by Mexican gangs to manufacture methamphetamine. The same goes for the methamphetamine laboratories in the Golden Triangle: all are equipped with Chinese chemical precursors, which end up returning to China in the form of methamphetamine. China is also a key source of fake pills, and that is where most of the world's new psychoactive substances are produced.

And as these bosses find new ways to skip border control, US authorities are largely unable to respond. The United States does not have an extradition agreement with China, and has no influence on Beijing as it had on the Colombian government in the attempt to attack its main cocaine traffickers. The United States cannot send troops and military equipment to China to fight drug traffickers. And as long as Trump continues to address China incorrectly, he is less likely to help repress people like Hong Kong Zaron. In the new drug trade, absorbing China could prove more fruitful in stopping drugs entering the United States than building a Mexican wall.

With plant-based drugs, users have to worry about purity and dosage, but usually you get the plant you ordered. Photo: Cuartoscuro

The second largest economy in the world, a nation that, ironically, was forced to import British opium or be bombarded by warships during the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, could soon become the largest illegal drug exporter in the world. world.

"(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. “The lack of regulatory supervision allows unscrupulous companies to market and export powerful synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl. … (It is) an ideal environment to hide the production and export of synthetic psychoactive agents, including opioids ”.

The report says that China's chemical exports account for a third of all world shipments. He says the US government estimates that 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 make psychoactive substances." Jeremy Douglas, representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says that the widespread corruption of industry in China is contributing to the illicit manufacture and export of synthetic drugs and precursors.

Part of the boom is reduced to the profit margins of synthetic drugs, which are significantly better. The analysis in the RAND report found that for illicit drug providers "the power and price of fentanyl make it an economically more attractive alternative to heroin." He said that, according to the United States Drug Control Administration, “one kilogram of fentanyl, after being pressed into pills, could generate between 10 and 20 million dollars in retail sales. After taking into account the minimum of three thousand 500 dollars per kilogram of product purchased from China online, distributors are attracted to the profitability of the drug. In comparison, heroin sells wholesale from 50 thousand to 80 thousand dollars per kilogram and is a fraction of the power, generating a profit of perhaps 200 thousand dollars. ”

Unlike coca or poppy producers in Colombia and Afghanistan, Chinese chemical companies openly advertise their products on English websites, with discounts for bulk purchases. They also sell fentanyl pill kits that include pill presses, adhesive agents, covers and chemical dyes.

"It is impressive how operationally simple it is for a single individual to introduce both fentanyl into the market using China and the Internet," tweeted Bryce Pardo, associate policy researcher at RAND Corporation. "At this rate, with several years of declining life expectancy in the United States, it is not irrational to classify this as a massive intoxication."

With plant-based drugs, users have to worry about purity and dosage, but usually you get the plant you ordered. In the world of synthetic drug chemistry it is impossible for the average user to know what their money has been spent, unless they try it.

And when the authorities prohibit a plant, everything ends there. However, banning synthetic drugs means banning specific chemical formulas, which has produced a toxic game where the chemistry of a drug is modified to circumvent the law, making the resulting product increasingly toxic and unpredictable. These toxic drugs are actually the inevitable byproduct of the ban because, as with the transport of whiskey instead of beer in the Age of Prohibition, there are more gains in drugs that have a high power-to-weight ratio.

Fentanyl and its analogues are some of the most potent substances ever developed. That is why they can be sent by mail, since small amounts can become large profits. Carfentanil, a fentanyl analogue that entered the world drug stream after China ordered a repression of fentanyl, is used to faint elephants and is 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It is classified as a chemical weapon by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

As drug trafficking fragments, it becomes more difficult to understand. Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia;

The new era of drug trafficking fits perfectly into the new world order. Like processed foods, plastic drugs are for the masses and real ones for the rich. In rich Europe, 50 to 70 percent of pure cocaine sells for approximately $ 87; In poor Europe, a combination of synthetic drugs and cutting agents from a Chinese laboratory is achieved for less than half the price.

This burgeoning illegal synthetic drug industry also encompasses the manufacturing and sale of deviant or counterfeit pharmaceuticals on the black market: a wide range of analgesics, stimulants and tranquilizers used as cheap products by poor citizens or by people in countries without adequate medical care. Health experts are sounding the alarm about the damage caused by prescription synthetics; for example, the Xanax tranquilizer in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the Captagon stimulant, a tablet made of amphetamine and theophylline, a stimulant similar to caffeine, in the Middle East. In general, it is a gray market that is worth almost as much as all illegal drug trafficking.

“The synthetic revolution is not a consumer driven change; quite the opposite, ”says Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0. “Most heroin users would not choose fentanyl, since the effects are shorter and less pleasant, and the risks of death are much greater. Likewise, there has never been a drug that adequately reproduces the effects of cocaine. And synthetic cannabinoids have established themselves only among the poorest members of society, while boutique cannabis dispensaries are charging dazzling prices for very little. ”

For the authorities, all this is a great nightmare. As drug trafficking fragments, it becomes more difficult to understand. Law enforcement was seriously failing with old-school drug trafficking, but the beginning of the new era has made it an even more awkward problem. The inability of the US border forces to contain the amount of fentanyl entering the country, even in the face of such a large death toll, is a testament to this.

If these trends continue, the production, sale and consumption of synthetic drugs could eclipse that of plant-based drugs. Borders will become even less relevant to traffickers and their profits, while compromising the ability of law enforcement to monitor or regulate the supply of drugs through seizures at the borders. All this will make the drug market increasingly reflect that of other consumer goods, and like cherry on the cake, drugs will only become more deadly. And as time goes by we only have one question: how long are we willing to bear the costs of a poorly regulated, harmful and violent economy, while moving towards a dystopia of toxic psychoactive waste, before taking the step towards adequate regulation ?



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