Remarks on Promoting Public-Private Partnerships in the Area of Drug Control

A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Promoting Public-Private Partnerships in the Area of Drug Control

Introductory remarks as delivered by Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. Louis L. Bono
Side event of the 64th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs
April 12, 2021

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to welcome you to this event on “Promoting Public Private Partnerships in the Area of Drug Control.” I want to start by thanking Jean Luc for moderating, and Thomas for your flexibility, our panelists for their presentations, as well as our co-sponsors – the Missions of Canada and Japan. Most of all, I thank you for joining this important conversation because we need to work with all sectors of society to address this problem.

The United States is facing the deadliest drug epidemic in our history – the opioid crisis. It is estimated that from August 2019 to August 2020 88,000 died from overdose in the United States – the most ever in a 12-month period – an increase of over 25 percent. It appears that the increased isolation, the anxiety that people are suffering from COVID, have exacerbated the problem.

During these COVID times, it is easy to let these statistics become an abstraction. We must remember, however, that each death is a unique tragedy, with profound impacts across societies. I’d like to relate how such tragedies can befall us, with little or no warning. A few months ago, in Rocklin, California, the Didier family sat down in their home one evening to watch a movie together. It was just after Christmas and the children were on break from school. When the movie ended, they exchanged “I love yous” and went to bed. The next morning, Mr. and Mrs. Didier found their 17-year-old son, Zach, slumped over his desk in his room. Zach was a star athlete, a self-taught musician, and above all an excellent student. After the movie, he had taken a fake prescription pill that he bought through a social media app. An app that my kids have on their phones. That one pill contained a lethal amount of the synthetic opioid Fentanyl.

This problem is not isolated to the United States. According to UNODC’s World Drug Report, in 2018, an estimated 58 million people around the world abused opioids, and opioids accounted for 66 percent of the estimated 167,000 drug-related deaths worldwide. This is a global health issue and a challenge to and international law enforcement – no single country can stop this crisis alone. Thus, a coordinated, multifaceted response is necessary. To succeed, we must be innovative, think out-side the box, and in this regard, we – in the public sector – must partner with the private sector.

Why are contributions from the private sector necessary? I’d like to talk about three reasons.

The first is technology. Like you heard in Zach’s story, traffickers are exploiting the internet and social media apps – popular among our youth – to market and sell drugs directly to users, hipping them through the mail in small, hard-to-detect quantities. Traditional countermeasures alone are no longer adequate to meaningfully disrupt such a diffuse supply chain.

Second, criminal organizations have figured out how to subvert the international scheduling system by procuring legitimate, commercially available chemicals to synthesize “new psychoactive substances,” or NPS, that are not controlled or regulated, but mimic the effects of scheduled drugs. UNODC is currently tracking over one thousand of these unique NPS in circulation worldwide, an almost 900 percent increase from only a decade ago.

Third, synthetic drugs have become so potent, addictive, and deadly that they pose unique challenges to our traditional prevention, treatment, and public health responses. Take Fentanyl, for example, the drug that killed Zach. Along with its analogues, fentanyl is now the leading driver of opioid overdose deaths in the US. It is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine, and it only takes a few granules of pure fentanyl to cause a fatal overdose. Unfortunately, treatment programs are limited. According to the World Drug Report, only one in eight people who need drug-related treatment receive it.

These are the challenges we are facing. So, what are the solutions and how can the private sector help?

I’ll highlight just a few examples.

The first comes from right here in Vienna. The International Narcotics Control Board, through its GRIDS program, brought together governments and chemical and pharmaceutical companies to develop a list of 144 fentanyl-related substances in circulation with no known legitimate uses, including 122 substances not under international control and 43 likely fentanyl precursors. GRIDS then worked with government authorities and industry partners to discontinue the manufacture, import, export, and distribution of these substances. This involved cooperation from some of the world’s biggest e-commerce platforms to actively identify and remove vendors attempting to market and sell these dangerous substances online.

The U.S. has long recognized the value of public-private partnerships. Through the Small Business Innovation Research program, our government encourages entrepreneurs to develop solutions to society’s challenges, including fighting substance abuse. One company that received funding, Sound Life Sciences, created software that converts phones into portable respiratory monitors that can identify symptoms of an opioid overdose. The system has been successfully tested in hospital emergency centers and with people who used opioids.

Finally, let me share an example of a public-private partnership on the local level. In the United States, workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries have some of the highest rates of substance use. In Florida, this is one of largest and most important sectors. A local health department in Florida is leading the way by partnering with companies in this industry to educate the workforce and assist employees who need treatment.

We all have an interest at stake, and, frankly, this is an area where more research, innovation and collaboration are necessary. That is why the United States sponsored a resolution on promoting effective partnerships with private sector entities at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs last year and provided funding to UNODC to create a compendium of good practices for developing public-private partnerships.

Our panelists today will provide you even more concrete examples of how public-private partnerships are saving lives and making a real difference in the fight against the World Drug Problem.

And with that, I’d like to turn back to you Jean Luc.

Thank you all again for joining us today.