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INCB Opioids Conference High Level Segment Ambassador Remarks
August 1, 2022

INCB Opioids Conference High Level Segment Ambassador Remarks
As delivered by Ambassador Laura S.H. Holgate – August 1, 2022


Thank you for the kind introduction.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  I’m delighted to join you today at the INCB’s first international conference for operational officers on the interdiction of fentanyl, synthetic opioids, and related dangerous substances.  I’d like to start by thanking the INCB for convening this group to address the deadliest drug threat facing my country and many others.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 108,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2021.  Two-thirds of those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.  Preventing these illicit synthetic opioids from entering our countries is essential to stopping this global crisis.  We are committed to working with our partners to disrupt the illicit trafficking networks that are driving this deadly trade.

The opioid crisis in the United States has become a very personal one.  Almost every American knows someone that has been affected. I have heard countless heart wrenching stories from colleagues in Washington, Members of Congress visiting Vienna, colleagues at our Mission, and even from some of you present today.  We also know we are not alone.  Many of you are facing similar devastation in your own countries.  What was once seen as a North American problem is now being recognized as a truly global epidemic, that we will have to fight together.

In order to reverse the tide of this crisis, we must also recognize that the international community has entered a critical phase in the fight against illicit narcotics.  While we continue to counter traditional drug trafficking modalities, the business model for trafficking synthetic drugs and novel psychoactive substances, or NPS, has grown in prevalence and continues to evolve.

The way that synthetic drugs are manufactured, marketed, and trafficked marks a fundamental shift from traditional trafficking methods.  Synthetic drugs can be produced virtually anywhere, from chemicals that also have legitimate uses.  As local regulatory controls shift, criminals respond by shifting to new production methods, including the use of uncontrolled and designer precursor chemicals, to evade law enforcement detection.  The international legal framework for drug control was designed to counter the drugs and drug markets of a different time, and struggles to keep pace with this new trafficking modality.

For example, the UN drug control treaties, as well as the laws of most countries, continue to control drugs and their precursors individually, which is a time-consuming and, frankly, insufficient approach when considering that today’s criminals can create a new NPS each week and rely on a growing list of nonscheduled precursor chemicals in their manufacture.  Preventing the diversion of precursor chemicals remains one of the most difficult challenges in reducing synthetic drug supplies, but also an opportunity to make improvements.

This is why the United States tabled a resolution at the 65th Commission on Narcotic Drugs this past March to intensify efforts to address diversion on unscheduled and designer precursor chemicals  – prevent their proliferation.  We were very pleased that the resolution was adopted by consensus and strongly encourage all member states to employ the strategies, tools, and best practices laid out in the resolution.  Among them are recommendations explained in the INCB’s paper entitled “Proliferation of non-scheduled chemicals and designer precursors: options for global action.”

At the same time, the tools of 21st century trade offer criminals numerous advantages to facilitate their illicit transactions.  The anonymity and convenience of the internet, social media, and other communications technologies allow them to aggressively market and sell drugs directly to global clients.  Online purchases increasingly use virtual currencies designed for anonymous use.  The potency of synthetic drugs allows criminals to ship these dangerous substances in small, hard-to-detect quantities through the mail.  It is a dangerously accessible and diffuse supply chain — a direct-to-consumer business model that bypasses traditional countermeasures we have used for decades to bring criminals to justice.

The effectiveness of that business model has exacerbated the deadliest drug epidemic in American history, the opioids crisis.  But as I previously noted, the United States is not alone in facing this challenge.  The 2022 UN World Drug Report, which UNODC published just a few weeks ago, tells us that this phenomenon continues to escalate globally, as the number of opioid users has nearly doubled worldwide since 2010.  Beyond opioids, methamphetamine use is rising across several regions, particularly Asia.  And hundreds of NPS have been synthesized globally in recent years.  Any community with access to the internet and international mail is vulnerable.  The international community needs new solutions to effectively counter this threat together.

One innovative resource at our disposal to confront emerging drug challenges is the INCB’s Global Rapid Interdiction of Dangerous Substances, or GRIDS program.  Building on the INCB’s long-standing experience as an enabler of the secure exchange of sensitive and restricted information at the global level, the GRIDS program offers governments cutting edge tools to work both with one another and with new partners, such as private industry, to shut down international trafficking operations.  The United States is proud to support GRIDS, whose intelligence exchange tools and multilateral operations have already facilitated impressive operational outcomes, including arrests of international drug traffickers.

Furthermore, the INCB’s expert group meetings have deepened government and industry’s ability to work with one another to stop criminals from exploiting private sector platforms to conduct their deadly trade.  Through these meetings, this program has helped develop concrete recommendations on how to improve cross-sectoral information sharing, and ultimately remove dangerous substances from online marketplaces.

I encourage all attendees to make the most of the INCB’s program this week.  Not only will you leave with more knowledge on emerging trends in NPS and synthetic opioids, but by taking advantage of intelligence tools and the opportunity for case meetings with foreign counterparts, you can also leave Vienna at the end of the week with new leads in your investigations to target drug traffickers operating in your countries.

I would like to thank all of you for being here this week.  There is no way to know exactly how many lives might be saved by any one seizure your law enforcement agencies make, or by any one company delisting dangerous substances from online marketplaces.  But we can know that by working with one another, we can make it harder to access deadly drugs and save lives in the process, in both my country and yours.

Your participation in this conference helps the international drug control community better prepare itself to confront the rapidly evolving synthetic drug threat and ultimately helps protect our citizens.

Thank you and have a good week.