US rallies international effort to combat synthetic drug trade

New Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats will bring together dozens of countries

Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have all agreed to participate in the coalition. Photo: Saudi Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority
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The US is launching a global coalition to combat the growing threat of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and Captagon.

“Synthetic drugs represent a grave and growing risk to the health and safety of Americans and people around the world,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will lead the first ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats on Friday.

Dozens of countries have been invited to join the coalition, including China, which has long been pressured to curb exports of precursor chemicals that can be used to manufacture fentanyl.

But Beijing has yet to agree to participate, said Todd Robinson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement.

“We don't have any indication at the moment that they [the Chinese] are going to participate but what I would say is this is the beginning of the process and our hope is that all responsible countries will eventually participate between now and over the next year,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid, estimated to be 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

It is prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain but has become a “major contributor” to overdoses in the US, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Synthetic opioids have become the leading cause of death among American adults under age 50.

“We believe that by combining our efforts … we can prevent the illicit manufacture and trafficking of synthetic drugs,” said Mr Robinson.

“We can identify emerging drug trends and use patterns, and we can develop global standards for healthcare responses.”

While the bulk of Friday's ministerial meeting is expected to centre on fentanyl, curbing the production and trafficking of Captagon is also expected to be on the agenda.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have all agreed to participate in the coalition, Mr Robinson said.

The launch of the coalition comes shortly after the State Department delivered its comprehensive strategy to Congress on how to combat the Captagon trade in the Middle East, which has been linked to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

With little ability to halt production within Syria, the State Department report suggested instead focusing on “disrupting the criminal networks involved in Captagon trafficking”.

As part of its strategy, the US will co-ordinate with and provide training to regional countries including Lebanon and Jordan.

“US counter-narcotics assistance and training programmes are designed to provide recipient countries with the tools and capabilities needed to stem regional drug trafficking and improve their national security and public health sectors,” the report said.

Captagon was created in Germany in the early 1960s and originally used to help treat children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as well as people with narcolepsy, but it was banned in most countries in 1986.

The amphetamine-like substance was used by ISIS militants on the front lines to stay awake for long stretches on the battlefield.

A highly addictive drug, it has become rampant in parts of the Middle East as authorities in the region race to crack down on what has become a multibillion-dollar illegal trade.

“It is definitely one of the most, I would say, formidable emerging trades in the region and also on a global scale, the Captagon trade is estimated to be worth at least $10 billion a year,” said Caroline Rose, director at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington whose work focuses on the Captagon trade.

Last month, Jordanian security forces disrupted a smuggling attempt at the Jaber border crossing with Syria, confiscating 67 kilograms of Captagon pills. Last week, Iraqi authorities seized 250,000 pills from a school in Anbar province.

And in perhaps the biggest operation last month, Omani authorities broke up an international smuggling network, seizing more than six million pills.

Ms Rose said that meetings such as Friday's ministerial are important in the fight against the Captagon trade.

“Improved multilateral dialogue on supply and demand, interdiction strategies, intelligence-sharing, and harm reduction pathways has been sorely needed,” she told The National.

Updated: July 06, 2023, 7:58 PM