U.S. National Statement at the Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting on International Challenges Posed by the Non-Medical Use of Synthetic Opioids

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations, K9 officer rewards his dog on November 28, 2017, after locating narcotics hidden in a package at the International Mail Facility in Chicago. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Kris Grogan

United States National Statement

Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting on International Challenges Posed

by the Non-Medical Use of Synthetic Opioids

As delivered by Teddi Shihadeh Bouffard, Senior Multilateral Affairs Advisor,

Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL)
Vienna, Austria

December 3, 2018


Thank you, Chair, for offering me the floor to speak on such an important topic.  Thank you to the UNODC Secretariat for supporting preparations for this expert meeting, which the Commission requested last year in Resolution 61/8 to learn more about the challenges posed by the non-medical use of synthetic opioids and to propose core elements for an international response.  This meeting is an excellent and much needed opportunity for Member States to identify innovative approaches to curb the misuse of synthetic opioids.  As a sponsor of that resolution, my delegation welcomes the opportunity to offer insights into our national experiences to address the tragedy that is unfolding every day in families and communities across the United States.   We want to be cognizant of our limited time and full agenda, so we submitted our full written statement to the Secretariat, which I will summarize here.

There are stories around the world of lives cut short and families suffering due to drug use disorders.  My country continues to be affected dramatically by these tragedies and is fighting the battle against misuse of synthetic opioids on many fronts.

The opioid epidemic in the United States is the most severe drug crisis our country has ever faced.  The emergence of dangerous new synthetic opioids has now transformed this crisis into a deadly phenomenon with complex transnational linkages.  In October 2017, the United States declared this epidemic a national public health emergency and made combating this deadly drug crisis a U.S. priority.

At the highest levels, the U.S. government is committed to turning the tide in the United States, and helping other countries struggling with this issue, and supporting international efforts to ensure other countries do not suffer a similar fate.  Our government is applying unprecedented resources to address this crisis.  Over the last year, the U.S. government spent over $4 billion to address the opioid epidemic. This includes funding for increased opioid overdose surveillance and research, treatment, prevention, support for law enforcement officials to better detect and interdict trafficked illicit synthetic opioids, enhanced resources for diversion investigations and prosecutions, drug courts, prescription drug monitoring programs, and much more.

In March, we began the Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand, which is a holistic approach aimed at (1) reducing demand and over-prescription; (2) cutting off the supply of illicit drugs; and (3) helping those struggling with addiction through evidence-based treatment and recovery support services.

Within the U.S. government, Departments are earnestly responding.  For example, the Department of Justice has prosecuted corrupt or criminally negligent doctors, pharmacies, and distributors.  Earlier this year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) advanced temporary emergency controls on all previously uncontrolled fentanyl-related substances.  DEA’s observations since issuing these temporary controls indicates that the class-wide scheduling is an effective tool to protect public health.

To bolster public health responses, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a five-pronged public health strategy focused on: (1) improving access to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services; (2) strengthening public health data reporting and collection; (3) advancing the practice of pain management to enable medical access to pain relief treatments while reducing the inappropriate use of opioids;  (4) targeting the availability and distribution of overdose-reversing medications, with a particular focus on high-risk populations; and (5) supporting better research to advance our understanding of pain, overdose, and addiction.

These efforts across the U.S. government are all dedicated to advancing one major goal: saving lives.

This is just a short summary of the actions the United States is taking domestically to address this crisis.  However, as we acknowledged in CND resolution 61/8, trafficking and misuse of synthetic opioids is an international challenge and requires a coordinated and strategic international response.

Transnational criminals are developing new substances at a rate faster than our national and international frameworks can respond.  UNODC reports that there are currently more than 850 new synthetic drugs, with approximately one new substance created each week.  At the same time, interrupting illicit drug production has become more challenging.  Unlike drugs derived from plant-based crops, synthetic drugs can be produced anywhere, with lower overhead requirements.  The relative ease with which synthetic drugs can be produced and adapted is but one aspect of the multifaceted challenge presented by this threat.

What’s more, traffickers are exploiting the boom in global access to information and technology to facilitate their lethal trade.  Illegal drug producers exploit the online platforms, including on the “Dark Web,” to directly market and aggressively sell to global customers.  Small quantities of synthetic opioids are also trafficked through international mail and express consignment shipments.  Criminal misuse of these modern tools makes it difficult for law enforcement on a global scale to monitor, investigate, and disrupt the drug market.

We applaud UNODC, INCB, and WHO for helping us facilitate the international cooperation required to make inroads in disrupting illicit supply of and curbing demand for synthetic opioids.   UNODC, INCB, and WHO have each developed separate strategic programmatic responses to address the law enforcement and public health aspects of this global challenge.  These responses can (1) support invaluable data collection and information sharing; (2) advance real-time coordination and information sharing among experts; (3) raise awareness on which substances are presenting the greatest threat to public health; and so much more.  With the help of these organizations, we can work together using multilateral interventions to respond to these 21st century drug-control challenges.

A major multilateral component to our collective response must be to accelerate the rate at which these dangerous drugs are controlled within the UN drug conventions.  Increased international controls can drastically reduce the availability of these drugs for criminal purposes and save lives.

However, international controls are only the first step.  It is also imperative to ensure that countries can institute these treaty-mandated controls at the national level, which requires significant capacity building worldwide.  In this vein, we want to commend UNODC for its initiative to develop a ToolKit comprised of a comprehensive set of technical assistance offerings that can advance this exact capacity building at the national level.

We are cognizant of the grave and ever-evolving nature of the illicit synthetic opioid threat.  Today, in the United States, the threat is posed primarily by synthetic opioids, but given the ease with which new substances can be illicitly produced, tomorrow’s threat could be an entirely new category of synthetic drugs.  To truly be effective, we must position ourselves to be more nimble, more agile, more adaptive, and more exhaustive in our approaches to ensure we can rise to the challenge of the dynamic threats we are combating.

One particular area we are looking forward to exploring with you all, is opportunities for enhanced cooperation with private sector entities, including chemical, pharmaceutical, shipping, and internet companies, because this public-private cooperation is a vital part of any solution.

Another important area we looking forward to discussing this week is the need to enhance the international community’s current knowledge and skillset in the area of investigating, prosecuting, and dismantling online drug vendors, including those operating on the “Dark Web.”  In these discussions, we are eager to gain a better understanding of successful methodologies to disrupt the illicit transactions that are facilitated by the use of cryptocurrencies.

We should also tap into additional international expertise detecting and interdicting synthetic drugs shipped through the mail and express consignment shipping, including by expanding the global collection and sharing of advanced electronic data (AED).  This AED helps regulatory and law enforcement authorities prioritize screening to target suspicious shipments.

In addition to working to disrupt the illicit supply chain, we must also consider the public health challenges associated with misuse of synthetic opioids.  A balanced and comprehensive response integrating public health and law enforcement approaches is essential to our success in responding to this challenge.

Our public health interventions must include sharing research and promoting best practices for prevention and treatment interventions, including supporting messaging on the risks of misusing synthetic drugs, increasing implementation of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery support services, and fostering the adoption of evidence-based practices to reduce the likelihood of unintentional exposure to dangerous synthetic drugs.  Importantly, we need improved data collection on the misuse trends related to synthetic drugs, including consumption trends, toxicological screening of synthetic drug profiles, and the prevalence of toxic adulterants in illicit drug supplies.

Addressing these multifaceted challenges is an enormous undertaking, and we must work together in lockstep to be effective.  Sadly, this is not a uniquely U.S., or North American, concern and we know that many countries are already experiencing the impact of this epidemic.  Any person in a nation with internet access and international shipping services can import these lethal substances. This international problem requires a smart, strategic, and coordinated international response.

We look forward to working with you all this week to identify opportunities for action at the national and international levels to help us, as nations and as an international community, be successful in our shared goal of ending this alarming new reality of the world drug problem.