Blinken calls for increased global cooperation to police synthetic drugs as worldwide overdose rates rise

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday called for greater international cooperation to fight the booming trafficking of illicit synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, the leading cause of overdose deaths in America.

He was speaking at an annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), which reviews global drug regulation and each year adds new so-called precursor chemicals – ingredients used to make illicit drugs – to international lists known as schedules to place strict controls on their trade.

“More than 40% of the American people know someone who has died from an opioid overdose. Synthetic drugs are now the number one killer of Americans aged 18 to 45,” Blinken said in a speech to the two-day “high-level segment” of the CND.

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While the drugs and the scale of the problem may vary by country, “in every region, use, dependence, overdose deaths by synthetic drugs are rising rapidly”, he said.

“My message to this gathering is urgent. If we want to change the trajectory of this crisis, there is only one way to succeed, and that’s together,” he said.

This year the CND, which is meeting in Vienna until the end of next week, is considering adding two fentanyl precursors to the schedules, which the United States supports. While such “scheduling” is necessary, U.N. officials say the process is a losing battle.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the 67th Session of the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs at Vienna International Center, in Vienna, Austria, on March 15, 2024. (Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool)

“The current international scheduling system is absolutely very effective in putting one substance out of the reach of illicit drug traffickers, but unfortunately is very little efficient in slowing down the pace of evolution of illicit drug manufacturing,” Antonio Mazzitelli of the International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors compliance with the schedules, told a separate event at the CND meeting.

“As soon as a substance is put under control, another one replaces it,” he added.

Blinken echoed that sense of facing a cunning opponent.

“The criminal groups that produce these drugs are agile. When one country cracks down on the production of a synthetic drug, or the chemical precursors that go into making them, criminals quickly find another place to produce them,” he said.

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Through a combination of other initiatives, however, such as closer cooperation with allies and working with social media companies to disrupt the synthetic drug trade online, there have been some successes, he said.

“We have recent data that suggests that for the first time in years, the number of Americans who died of overdoses did not increase significantly. The number has leveled off. Now with one American still dying of a drug overdose every five minutes, our work is far from finished,” Blinken said.

“But the change suggests that the steps we’re taking, many in partnership with countries here in this room, are making a difference, are starting to turn the tide,” he added.

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