Pubdate: Mon, 23 Oct 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Jeremy Douglas
Page: S2


Drug's rise shows need for pivot on illegal substances, such as
improving social supports and better understanding supply chains

In times of high demand for a product or service, existing businesses
are often blindsided by new players offering something cheaper, better
or faster. Traditional distribution networks are challenged, and new
products flood the market. The term "disruption" is commonly used
these days to describe what is happening to different parts of the
economy, but it has not yet been applied to illegal drug markets -
even though that's precisely what's happening.

Unlike the evolving landscape of legitimate businesses, the illegal
drug trade has victims. In Canada and the United States, surges in
opioid consumption have included a hidden supply of fentanyl, a
synthetic drug killing thousands. Fentanyl is both a business story
and a warning that the traditional approach to drug control needs an
urgent rethink.

Fentanyl has similar effects to powerful opioids such as heroin, but
that's like saying a missile is similar to a bullet. Fentanyl is 50
times stronger than heroin, and some variations are even stronger. If
users think they are injecting heroin when it's actually fentanyl,
they are likely to harm themselves or worse.

The only legal use of fentanyl is for the treatment of extreme pain.
But it is now widely available in illicit drug markets, and in some
instances it has been diverted from pharmaceutical supplies. This
echoes another diversion problem: people obtaining opioid painkillers
such as OxyContin on the black market. However, if organized crime
can't pay someone to divert fentanyl, it can be found on the dark web,
and some non-controlled variants produced in Asia are readily
available online. And of course it can be synthesized in a few steps
from chemicals available in pharmaceutical supply chains.

 From a criminal's point of view, fentanyl has several advantages over
a drug such as heroin. First, you've got something consumers want
badly - your product is addictive and there is pre-existing market
demand. Second, it is cheap to procure and can be cut and sold at high
prices. Third, it is compact, which facilitates concealment and
distribution. Fourth, you can bypass traditional suppliers who likely
source from troubled places such as Afghanistan and Myanmar.

Finally, barriers to market entry are low. Major organized crime
groups remain dominant, with established distribution networks and the
ability to protect themselves from enforcement. But they are now
competing in a fragmented market with entrants who do not need to
invest in production, can source supply virtually anonymously and make
high profits quickly. It is not a stretch to say there are parallels
between the fentanyl business and the loosely connected network of
Uber drivers taking on traditional taxi fleets.

As with disruption by Uber, North America is at the forefront of
disruption by fentanyl. But it has begun showing up in other places,
including Australia, Britain and parts of Europe. It is the most
dramatic recent example of a decentralized shift to synthetic drug
supply - and of the speed with which new drugs can capitalize on
existing market demand.

If drugs such as fentanyl are like a new disruptive app, then the
common approach to drug control is a clunky fax machine. The current
system of surveillance and response is clearly much slower than the
drug markets. Enforcement and international co-operation tools - which
have already been struggling for years - were originally devised to
focus on a small number of plantderived substances coming from a few
places. And there is a division between internationally scheduled "bad
drugs" such as heroin and "dual-use" substances such as fentanyl
produced by the pharmaceutical industry but also now made and
trafficked by criminals.

Obviously we need systems of domestic and international surveillance
that focus on rapidly understanding the sources, production and use
patterns of new drugs. Crucially, interagency responses are needed
that involve different disciplines and an understanding of globalized
supply chains. And we need a much more effective public health and
education response. The idea that drug users can be protected because
"word gets around" about new substances is clearly not true. We need
nimble, effective outreach to those most vulnerable. And we need to
support the people who help them.

Disruption can test any existing business and throws up unexpected
challenges for governments. While the illegal drug trade is ruthless
and profit-driven, we can't lose sight of the fact the market is not
regulated and operates in the shadows. It needs the right response. If
thousands of people were dying from a contaminated water supply or new
contagious disease, what would we expect from our governments?
Fentanyl is showing us that traditional drug-control tools are just
not responsive enough, because we haven't fully recognized the problem
as a fast-moving disruption of illegal drug markets.

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United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime regional representative for 
Southeast Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok
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