Small Wars Journal

Synthetic Drugs are Different, Our Response Must be Too

Sun, 01/30/2022 - 3:03pm

Synthetic Drugs are Different, Our Response Must be Too

By Jim Crotty

The explosion of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine is the most significant change to the drug trade in the last twenty years.  Unlike plant-based drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, which require control of large swaths of territory and a favorable climate, synthetic drugs have comparatively low barriers to entry.  They are relatively cheap and easy to make, easy to conceal, and more potent than traditional drugs.  From a trafficker’s perspective, they are the perfect drug.  They are also incredibly lethal.    

Today, more Americans are killed by synthetic drugs than any other substance.  Although more Americans live in fear of violent crime and terrorism, illicit drugs pose the single greatest threat to American safety and security.  More than one million Americans have been killed by illicit drugs since the turn of the century, and one drug in particular, fentanyl, is now the leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 45 – more than car accidents, violent crime, and Covid-19.

Synthetic drugs are very likely the future of drug trafficking.  This has significant implications for U.S. national security and drug policy, as the overwhelming majority of synthetic drugs consumed in the United States originate in Mexico, where they are manufactured on an industrial scale with chemicals imported from China and then transported into the U.S. via the Southwest Border.  And the flood of synthetic shows no signs of slowing.  Mexico remains America’s drug bazaar.

Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CNJG) are as dominant as ever – according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), no other group is currently positioned to challenge them.  These groups have maintained a stranglehold over the drug trade in large part due to their proximity to the U.S. – the largest drug consumer in the world, with over 80 million Americans using illicit drugs in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use.  Both Mexico and the U.S. have acknowledged the seriousness of the problem, but despite considerable investment of blood and treasure, neither has been able to alter the current state of play.  So, where do we go from here? 

The U.S. has spent billions of dollars and deployed a wide range of counterdrug strategies over the years to help reduce the supply of drugs, with mixed results.  The truth is, there is no silver bullet solution to such a complex problem.  However, some strategies are more effective than others, in particular, those focused on disrupting the drug trade “upstream,” before these dangerous substances enter the stream of commerce and are more difficult to stop.   

The urgency of today’s drug crisis requires the U.S. to consider new, bold strategies to stem the flow of drugs that do not rely on other countries that may not have America’s best interests at heart.  With apologies to Tom Clancy, illicit drugs are indeed a clear and present danger, and require a supply-side response proportionate to the threat.  This includes continued support for traditional enforcement activities to “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy” drug trafficking organizations, as well as more proactive measures focused on disrupting the production synthetic drugs.  After all, without the right chemicals and expertise, it’s impossible for cartels to make synthetic drugs.

First, the U.S. must pressure China and Mexico to control the importation and exportation of precursor chemicals used to manufacture synthetic drugs.  In 2019, the Chinese government outlawed the production and sale of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues after an intensive U.S. diplomatic campaign, which resulted in the dramatic decrease of these substances shipped directly from China to the U.S.  However, Beijing and Mexico City have been slow to control precursor chemicals, which has simply shifted production of fentanyl from China to Mexico.  The U.S. should pursue a similar diplomatic track to persuade China and Mexico to control precursor chemicals and – more importantly – to strictly enforce these regulations.  Should they fail to act, the U.S. must take more aggressive and targeted steps to keep these chemicals from being converted into synthetic drugs bound for the U.S.

For example, the U.S. and its partners must treat precursor chemicals the same way they treat the illicit drugs derived from them and enhance efforts to seize them before they reach their destination.  In most cases, this means interdicting them at sea on their journey from chemical factories in China to clandestine drug laboratories in Mexico.  Most U.S. Coast Guard and naval assets in the Southern hemisphere are currently focused on stopping cocaine shipments from South America.  The U.S. should redirect these assets to target the flow of precursor chemicals from China to Mexico (which may have the added benefit of positioning them closer to the Indo-Pacific in the event of hostilities), and increase law enforcement, military, and intelligence efforts to detect, monitor, and interdict these substances.

There are legal, economic, and political concerns with this approach.  Interdicting a foreign-flagged commercial vessel with “legitimate” cargo is very different than stopping a stateless go-fast vessel carrying a large quantity of cocaine, and a broad “stop-and-search” policy is likely to face strong opposition from foreign governments and businesses concerned about supply chains.  Additionally, there is risk that adversaries may invoke U.S. policy to justify their own interdiction polices. 

But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. before, for example, with the voluntary Proliferation Security Initiative, a voluntary, multilateral effort to enhance interdiction capabilities and increase coordination between states to disrupt trade in weapons of mass destruction (WMD), delivery systems, and related materials.  And while everyone acknowledges the dangers posed by WMD, precursor chemicals pose a much more immediate threat to the U.S. and its citizens.  Indeed, illicit drugs killed more than 100,000 Americans in the last 12 months, and top U.S. military and Homeland Security officials have seriously considered designating fentanyl a WMD, underscoring just how dangerous these substances really are.

Finally, the U.S. should leverage some of the lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to disrupt the manufacture of synthetic drugs, for example, by targeting drug chemists, who, like bombmakers, are relatively small in number and difficult to replace.  In the last 20 years of conflict, the U.S. learned that targeting the improvised explosive device (IED) networks was far more effective and efficient than trying to defeat individual IEDs.  The same logic applies to drug chemists.  U.S. counterdrug agencies should double down on efforts to identify and neutralize drug chemists, many of whom are highly-trained and known to transfer their knowledge to other bad actors.  Treating drug chemists as “high value targets” would not require any new authorities or tactics, just a shift in focus, and would have a much greater impact than removing other cartel figures. 

The American drug crisis is unrelenting.  The conveyor-belt-like surge of synthetic drugs has complicated enforcement efforts and led to an increasing number of overdose deaths.  The problem is clear, the solution less so.  To combat the drug crisis, the U.S. must employ a whole-of-government approach and improve in all three facets of drug policy – demand reduction, supply reduction, and treatment.  However, the spread of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs is largely explained by supply-side factors and thus requires new, proactive counterdrug strategies that cut these drugs off at the source.  Ideally, other countries around the world, especially China and Mexico, would support these efforts based on a shared commitment to combat illicit drugs, but if they do not, the U.S. must do more to “strangle the baby in the cradle.”  American lives depend on it.

About the Author(s)

Jim Crotty is the former Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  He is currently an Associate Vice President at The Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm based in Washington, DC.