Briefing on the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report

Special Briefing

William R. Brownfield
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

Via Teleconference

March 2, 2017

MS TRUDEAU: Great. Thank you, Justin, and thanks to everyone for joining us. Today’s call is on the record; there is no embargo. It is with great pleasure that I introduce the Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Ambassador William Brownfield, who will be speaking today about the newly released International Narcotics Control Strategy Report ( , as well as the international dimensions of the ongoing U.S. drugs crisis.

And with that, I turn it over to the assistant secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Why thank you, Dr. Trudeau. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to join you all this morning. May I confirm that yesterday, the Department of State delivered the 32nd International Narcotics Control Strategy Report to Congress, as is required by law. It is, however, the first time that we are discussing and rolling this report out before the media in nine years. We last did this in the year 2008. And we have decided to do it not because it is going to be a story about certifying or not certifying individual countries. First, that is a different report which comes out in September; and second, that is not the purpose, at least in my mind, of this discussion.

The reason I want to have the opportunity to talk to you is to discuss how this report links up with perhaps the worst drug crisis that we have seen in the United States of America since the 1980s, and the worst heroin and opioids crisis that we have seen in the United States in more than 60 years. As most of you who have a domestic beat know here in the United States, today we have more communities, more families, more groups of people, more regions, more localities, that are addressing and confronting a drug abuse and addiction problem related to heroin, to opioids, to fentanyl, and to other synthetic drugs than we have seen in the immediate post-Second World War era, when tens of millions of packages of morphine returned to the United States from more than 14 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen who deployed overseas.

And ladies and gentlemen, 100 percent of all heroin, and the great majority of all synthetic drugs that are used and abused in the United States, come from outside of the United States. This report, which is now available to all of you online on the State Department website, tells a picture of the international architecture that is now in place around the world to help us address this crisis in the United States.

And if you’d permit me to say for no more than 30 more seconds, I think it tells a pretty good story. It is a story of 40 years of building capabilities, intelligence, coordination, specialized units, new laws, and relationships around the world. It is a story that relates to the President’s own comments on our opioid crisis when he addressed the United States Congress two nights ago, or, as the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security said at the end of their visit to Mexico last week, describing – excuse me – the cooperation that now exists that is unprecedentedly good between Mexico and the United States on this issue.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you all will no doubt point out to me in the course of this discussion, we’ve still got major challenges ahead to address the opioid crisis here in the United States of America; but, in my humble opinion, this report suggests that we’re in a far better place to address those challenges now than we would have been 20, 30, or 40 years ago.

With that, I turn this conversation back over to the maestro.

MS TRUDEAU: Great, thank you. Justin, if I could have you give the question instructions one more time, and then we’ll open it up for questions.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d now like to ask a question, please press * followed by 1 at this time. If you are using a speakerphone today, it may be helpful to lift the handset before using those commands. But once again, please queue up with * followed by 1 at this moment.

It looks like our first question comes from the line of David Brunnstrom of Reuters. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. I wondered if I could ask about Mexico. Seeing as most hard drugs are coming across official points of entry, will building a wall between the United States and Mexico actually help stop the flow?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Right. Let me answer that part of the question which I think I heard. You were coming in a little bit broken up here. But what I heard was whether constructing a wall between the United States and Mexico will help address the drug issue.

First and foremost, the United States and Mexico have developed cooperative mechanisms, coordination, joint operations, intelligence sharing, since the beginning of the Merida Initiative in the year 2007 that makes us more able to address the issue of drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexican border than ever before. In a sense, we have developed a law enforcement cooperative wall at this point without actually having the physical construction of a wall.

The President of the United States has been very clear on his intentions in terms of this border, and I would say to you that we will integrate any realities, any new opportunities or tools that are made available to us that would help better control drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexican border. But I would also say as the assistant secretary of state for drugs and law enforcement that we will do it in cooperation with our counterparts in the Government of Mexico, exactly as the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security said publicly in Mexico City last week.

MS TRUDEAU: Thank you. If we can move to our next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Carol Morello with The Washington Post. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello. Since the Mexicans often point out that – can you hear me?

MS TRUDEAU: We can, Carol. Thank you.

QUESTION: Okay. Since the Mexicans often point out that the problem exists because there’s such a huge market in the United States – what you’ve talked about today seems to be more producer-driven than market-driven – what do you think needs to be done to stem the huge market here in the United States?

And also, while I have you on the line, I’d like to take the opportunity to ask whether you expect to continue staying in that position or if you are considering leaving. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Let me take the first question first because that obviously is the easiest and safest question for me. Listen, I believe several hundred years ago Mr. Adam Smith concluded that under the natural laws of economics that there is a direct relationship between supply and demand, between production and market. And drug abuse, drug consumption, and drug addiction is obviously subject to the basic and international and universal laws of market economics.

I would suggest to you that the demand for heroin and opioids in the United States has, in fact, increased dramatically over the last 15 or 20 years. I would suggest to you that most, although not all, experts believe that this is a result of a series of factors that began early in the last decade when first the medical community, responding to their patients who were asking for assistance in managing pain, prescribed pain medications. That, in turn, generated a demand from the pharmaceutical industry to produce more, and more effective, pain medication, which generated greater use, more addiction, and eventually a diversion into the black market on prescription medication, which then allowed trafficking organizations to supplant – at much lower cost – the pharmaceutical products with heroin and other illicit product.

It’s not actually at this point a question of who is responsible. As we have determined for more than 20 years, the United States and Mexico have shared responsibilities for this problem, and that requires shared solutions. And I repeat, Carol, I actually believe that at this point in time, cooperation between the United States and Mexico on this matter, on the matter of drug production and drug trafficking, is at historically high levels. I have positive things to say on that point.

Your second question, as you can well imagine, is going to get a very diplomatic answer. I am in the job for which I was confirmed by the United States Senate in the year 2011 and will remain here until I no longer am in this job.

MS TRUDEAU: Thank you. We’ll move to our next question.

OPERATOR: It comes from the line of Josh Lederman of the Associated Press. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could describe how our counternarcotics efforts and cooperation with other countries on drug enforcement would be affected by dramatic cuts to the State Department budget. Have you identified specific programs that you anticipate having to cut? And have those been incorporated into the plan that the State Department will be sending the White House about how to meet those targets?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Josh, that’s a very fair question. But I would say, if can use the baseball analogy or metaphor, you’re asking me a ninth inning question in the first half of the first inning. This is – I am a gentleman – while I appear to be a very young fellow, this is the thirty-eighth or thirty-ninth budget process and passback that I have worked through since I came into this business. And I know from experience, dating back to 1979, that there are going to be many iterations before we finally have a final budget.

Now, if your question is a more generic one, which is to say: Can we do more with a bigger budget? Would we be able to do less with a smaller budget? The answer to both of those questions, of course, is yes. But to a very considerable extent, that’s what you, the taxpayer, pay me the big bucks – not nearly as big as I might wish, but nevertheless perfectly adequately big bucks – to kind of take into account and figure how to deliver greatest possible value for the American people in terms of the budget that is made available to us. There is not a human being in this city who will tell you that he wouldn’t prefer to have a larger budget in order to accomplish his objectives.

I believe we have a good strategy. I believe this international drug report lays out a good global architecture for more than 100 nations of the world to cooperate and work together to address the drug issue. I believe we are going to have challenges, and I’ve laid the most important one out for you in the course of this morning: We have a historic heroin and opioids crisis in the United States of America. And we obviously are going to have to refine our approach to address a matter that is affecting millions of American citizens directly or indirectly today. That is my diplomatic response to your perfectly legitimate question.

MS TRUDEAU: Thanks. Justin, if we could move to our next question, please.

OPERATOR: Sure. Juan Lopez of CNN. Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Mr. Brownfield, I wish the best of luck to the Orioles in spring training. Thank you for this call. And two parts – Colombia, a country you know very well. FARC demobilizing in these zones, but there are reports of a higher yield of coca crop. And Venezuela – you have – the reports states how lack of – lack or little cooperation with the U.S., and now the inclusion of the vice president in the OFAC list. So where do you see that happening? Where do you see that going? And how will that impact the efforts if the relations with Venezuela keep on being very tense? And how can Colombia reduce those crops? As you said, demand will fuel the production.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Juan, I have to tell you right up front that since my return to Washington in 2010 I’ve developed a certain affection for the National League as well. Although I will never abandon my beloved Orioles of Baltimore, the beauty of it is I have both a National League team here an American League team up there.

Colombia – you have correctly pointed out that over the last three years both U.S. estimates and United Nations estimates indicate that there is a substantial increase in coca being cultivated and cocaine being produced in the Republic of Colombia. Colombia is a close friend, a partner, and, in fact, the government with which we have perhaps the closest relationship here in the Western Hemisphere over the past 17 years. We are working the problem. It is a serious problem. Both governments recognize this fact. Both governments realize that it is neither in the interest of Colombia, nor in the United States of America, nor, frankly, any country in the Western Hemisphere or the world, that there be more than a doubling of cocaine production coming from Colombia over the last four – three or four years. I will be down in Colombia next week and I expect, as part of a larger interagency process, to engage in serious discussions with the Government of Colombia on this issue.

Venezuela is a different sort of challenge. As you have correctly noted, the law enforcement and counternarcotics relationship between Venezuela and the United States is very different from that between Colombia and the United States. We do have issues, in terms of coordination and cooperation. We have several times, over the last five years, designated individual citizens of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as either drug kingpins or those who have major and significant roles to play in international narcotics trafficking.

We did such a designation in the course of the last two weeks, which, as you correctly point out, involved the executive vice president of Venezuela as well as an associate of his. That designation was determined by the Department of Treasury but with the concurrence of the Department of State and the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. I would only say to you what a very wise man said the evening before that particular designation was announced publicly, when he said, “This is not a diplomatic message or a law enforcement message or an economic message or a political message or a message between two governments. This is instead a message from the United States of America saying that we will use all of the tools in our inventory that are available to us in order to address individuals involved in drug trafficking.” I said it two weeks ago; I repeat it now.


MS TRUDEAU: Justin, we’ll move to our next question.

OPERATOR: Certainly. It comes from Lucia Leal of EFE. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. Thanks for doing this. I hear some kind of echo. I was reading the report, and the part on Mexico says that there are data trends suggesting that illicit opium poppy cultivation will continue to grow. I was wondering what’s your message or recommendation to the Mexican authorities to counter this trend.

And if I can get back to the budget question that was asked, would you make the argument, that amid these spending cuts, that the budget for international security and counternarcotics programs should stay intact?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Let me do the first question first, Mexico opium poppy cultivation and opium and heroin production. I am not yet in a position to talk about the estimates which have – which are just now being completed for the year 2016, but I can say, as the international drug report does also say, that opium poppy cultivation is on the increase and, logically, the production of opium and heroin is on the increase as well.

My answer to your question is that the United States and Mexico are talking all the time about opium poppy and about heroin. We talk about it in terms of eradication and ways we can cooperate in reducing the amount that is being cultivated today. We talk about it in terms of addressing the criminal organizations – the cartels – who have laboratories and sophisticated transport systems to move product, to produce the heroin and then move product to the border. We talk about it in terms of cooperation on interdiction; in terms of intelligence collection; in terms of addressing their illicit finance and money laundering by which they take their revenue and process it through financial systems into illicit economic activities. We have a challenge – absolutely, completely, and totally – but we also have a coordination and cooperation mechanism that puts us better able to address that challenge today than we would have been if we were having this conversation ten years ago. That’s what I mean when I say, “This report suggests good international architecture.” Not that we don’t have problems; we do, and they are serious problems, but that we have a far better architecture to address them today than we did in years past.

Your second question, again, first, I’m going back to the baseball metaphor. You were asking me in the top of the first inning a question that I shouldn’t have to answer until the bottom of the ninth. If you’re asking in generic terms, do I believe I could have a greater impact with a larger budget, of course I do. But I can assure you every single assistant secretary in the government of the United States of America would say exactly the same.

At the end of the day, as I read the United States Constitution, it is the head of the Article 2 branch of government, the president of the United States, who determines what the budget is that he wishes to request; and the Article 1 branch of government, the United States Congress, that determines what funds will be made available to us. And we, the poor humble assistant secretaries, then determine how to get maximum value for the American people from the budget that is made available to us. That’s the way it’s been for a couple of hundred years, and I expect that’s the way it’s going to be for many years to come.

MS TRUDEAU: Thank you. One more, if we could have our last question, please, Justin.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Our last question will come from the line of [inaudible] Mosendz of Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you for hosting this call today. I had a two-part question. One, I was hoping that you could speak to the role of the United Nations in the work that you do. I ask because the President and those associated with him have just made some comments about not being as closely affiliated with the United Nations as previously they – the United States has been. So I was curious how you think that might impact your work.

And I was also hoping that you could speak to the role of China with synthetic opioids. I know that when I was reading through the report, it came up a couple times when it comes to both the synthetic drugs that are being created and the new ones that are coming out of China.

So I was hoping you could speak to both those issues.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Sure. Actually, two excellent questions, and thank you for both of them.

The United Nations. On matters related to drugs and drug trafficking, there are three United Nations organizations that have the lead. The overall kind of executive organization is called the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which meets annually in a session in March. It meets, in fact, the week after next, and I expect to participate in that meeting. I think it’s probably the 45th or the 46th meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Its implementing arm is called the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which has programs around the world, probably in more than a hundred countries.

And finally, its judicial branch, if you wish to call it that, is called the International Narcotics Control Board or the INCB. And may I state clearly and for the record, we have an excellent relationship with those three UN bodies. They are extremely skilled and quite effective in terms of their drug policy, their drug programs, and their drug determinations. I mentioned earlier that we have surveys and estimates that are provided both by the United States Government and the United Nations in terms of drug cultivation and drug production. It is an example of how we are two different institutions working the same issue.

On the matter of drugs, ladies and gentlemen, the relationship, the cooperation, the coordination, the mutual support between the United States counternarcotics community and the UN drug community is very close and very cooperative.

Your second question was China – a fairly important nation in the world on most issues, but particularly so on the matter of drugs. I have a good story to tell on that. The United States and China have a mechanism that was established in 1999 that is called the Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement between China and the United States. We meet once a year at the level of senior law enforcement officials from both governments and hammer out strategic and policy issues, and then we cooperate at working level throughout the year.

And I can tell you that over the last four years, our cooperation through this mechanism and agency to agency between the U.S. and China on drug-related issues has improved astronomically. In the last two years, the Government of China has moved to schedule and control more than 130 new synthetic drugs in China. They have done gargantuan work in terms of controlling products that, if left uncontrolled, actually could contribute to drug abuse not just in the United States, but throughout the entire world. We have worked cooperatively with the Government of China in controlling both fentanyl, the product which is actually killing more people in the United States today than heroin – fentanyl, its precursors, and its analogs. This, in turn, is literally saving lives in the United States of America.

The Chinese have their own drug abuse and their own drug addiction problems and they, quite reasonably, have come to us and asked us to support their efforts on scheduling and controlling products that are causing them their own drug abuse problems. It’s a good relationship on drugs. I actually want to say this right now and very clearly because I do realize that there are other issues that are more complicated. I want to be very clear on this one: On matters of drugs and drug abuse, the U.S. and China are cooperating quite well and we are, in fact, jointly going to support a resolution at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in about two weeks’ time that will place international controls on several precursors necessary to produce fentanyl. We are doing this because fentanyl represents a danger not just to the United States, but to China and to most of the nations on the – in the world.

It is a good news story. And Dr. Trudeau, if you wish to offer one more question, I can probably stay for that. Back to you.

MS TRUDEAU: Very generous, sir. Justin, if we could have our final question.

OPERATOR: Certainly. The next question comes from the line of Sam Quinones, who is freelance. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, ambassador. Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us. I have, I guess, two questions. One is: What percentage of heroin comes from the countries of Mexico and Colombia – most likely, these days, through Mexico – and what percentage comes from the Far East these days? We keep hearing, people keep hearing, I keep hearing from – questions from people: Well, we’re in Afghanistan, so much of our heroin must come from Afghanistan. And I want to – my impression is that that’s not the case, but I want to hear your opinion on where most of our heroin is coming from these days.

And the other is: If the rise of the use of fentanyl, particularly by Mexican drug trafficking groups, corresponds to perhaps our own rising use of opium products – of heroin in particular coming from Mexico, which has maybe surpassed Mexico’s own production capability and therefore led drug trafficking groups to resort to fentanyl, if we’re just using so much of – so much heroin these days that they just don’t have the ability – they’re having a tough time keeping up with our demand and so this has forced some to turn to fentanyl (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Thanks, Sam. Two good questions, and in fact, I appreciate them because it allows me to link in at the end of this discussion kind of my theme at the start, which is the importance of this annual report this year is to lay down how well postured and positioned we are around the world to address the U.S. heroin and opioids crisis – the worst such crisis that we have seen here in more than 60 years, heroin in the United States. As you well know, since drug traffickers do not register their product and do not report imports and exports, we obviously have to go from law enforcement data that is based upon individuals arrested, emergency room entries in U.S. hospitals, and our own basic intelligence estimates.

My estimate is that between 90 and 94 percent of all heroin consumed in the United States comes from Mexico. My estimate is that a very tiny percentage now, perhaps as little as 2 percent to 4 percent, comes from Colombia. And the remainder, which might be somewhere in the 4 to 6 percent category, comes from Asia, the majority of that coming from Afghanistan.

These numbers are obviously completely distorted from global numbers, since we also estimate that 80 percent – excuse me – of the world’s heroin is produced in Afghanistan, but very little of that comes to the United States of America. Not by the way, because it cannot reach North America; on the contrary, our neighbors to the north calculate that a majority of the heroin consumed in Canada, in fact, comes from Afghanistan. So it’s not that they cannot get their product into the United States; it is for other reasons that it is not at this time widely consumed in the United States of America.

Fentanyl: Fentanyl, by our assessment, is now being trafficked into the United States by the same trafficking organizations that move heroin and opioids, as well as cocaine, into the United States of America. It is an amazingly economically productive product to traffic, because the costs are extremely low; they are very small and easily scalable in terms of trafficking across an international border. And when they hit the market in the United States, by introducing them into the heroin product itself, they can increase the impact of the heroin enormously at very low cost.

What we see happening for the most part is fentanyl coming in, in its raw form, from Asian production, a great deal of which is still in China. It processes through Mexico, where it enters into their trafficking stream, as they are moving heroin, some synthetics, and cocaine north into the United States and further north into Canada. And it then becomes an exceptionally dangerous product in the United States, because fentanyl is 10 to 50 times as potent as heroin, and when the user does not realize that he or she is consuming fentanyl and not consuming heroin, the likelihood of overdose and death is extremely increased. In fact, there have been times, as I know you are aware, Sam, in certain cities – Chicago comes most to mind – where in a single evening, due to a poorly advertised batch of fentanyl, we lost like more than 30 people in a single night.

That’s the fentanyl challenge. The challenge is that you could have, perhaps, a hundred hits of fentanyl in a package about the size of a cigarette box. And how you deal with that from a law enforcement and a counter trafficking perspective is one of the challenges that we have to deal with.

But if I may close the way I started, we are better positioned to deal with it today, as this annual report demonstrates, because we have mechanisms, cooperation. We have regional groupings; we have equipment and technology; we have specialized units; we have legislation and statutes on the books in more than 100 different countries that allow us to address the issue internationally, multinationally, regionally, and bilaterally among governments. It is much better that we are confronting this situation, this historic opioid crisis today, with the architecture that we have in place now than it would have been 20 years ago. And while I don’t wish to minimize the dangers, the problems, the risks that we are dealing with here in the United States of America, I do want to say that I feel better about our ability to address them with the architecture described in this report than I would have felt 20 years ago.

And that, Dr. T, better be my last word.

MS TRUDEAU: It absolutely is. And I want to thank our Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Ambassador Brownfield for joining us today. Thanks to the journalists who were able to join us on the call. As a reminder, this call was on-the-record. We will put out the transcript as soon as possible. That will also be posted on, as will the links to the report.

Thank you again for joining us and have a great day.

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