“The global environment of drug production and trafficking has transformed in fundamental ways in recent years to become the most dynamic and complex the United States has ever faced. Our approach must evolve as well.”
SAIS Review of International Affairs: A Holistic Approach Towards International Counternarcotics Cooperation
[Rahul Gupta, MD, MPH, MBA and Todd D. Robinson, 10/21/22]
We recently traveled together to Colombia to discuss the Biden-Harris administration’s holistic approach to counternarcotics with the newly elected Colombian government, which is informing how we address the production and trafficking of illicit drugs in our own hemisphere and around the globe. We had the pleasure of meeting with President Gustavo Petro for a wide-ranging discussion on the nature of the illicit drug problem from both the security and public health perspectives, areas where the United States and Colombia can agree. We also travelled with Vice President Francia Márquez to Tumaco, a majority Afro-Colombian community on Colombia’s Pacific coast, where we were able to view firsthand the negative effects of the illicit drug trade and illegal mining, and engage in substantive conversations on mutually beneficial opportunities for the future.
We felt it important for our first meeting with Colombia’s new leaders that we share how the United States is taking a new, holistic approach to counternarcotics, and our belief that productive cooperation with President Petro’s administration is possible. We did so by identifying multiple areas of common interest, expressing sincere concern for the welfare of the Colombian people, emphasizing our desire to continue the implementation of a holistic strategy that addresses the root causes of coca cultivation, and acknowledging some of the shortcomings of previous counternarcotics policies, which our counterparts viewed as unfairly targeting Colombia’s most vulnerable people.
The process of developing this holistic approach in close collaboration with our Colombian partners can also serve as a model for working with partners across the globe to tackle this critical problem. It is heartbreaking that annual drug overdose deaths in the United States exceeded 108,000 in 2021, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To put that number into perspective, that means on average one American dies from an overdose approximately every five minutes around the clock. That is a sobering statistic; behind each number is a child, sibling, co-worker, neighbor, or friend. The Biden-Harris administration is committed to dedicating greater resources to tackle the problem, and to using new thinking at home and a holistic approach in dealing with our international partners. For this reason, the administration’s inaugural National Drug Control Strategy focuses on addressing the two critical drivers of the overdose epidemic: untreated substance use disorder and drug trafficking.
Today’s overdose crisis is driven primarily by the consumption of synthetic opioids like illicit fentanyl, which can be extremely potent and lethal even in small amounts. These drugs are generally manufactured outside our borders and trafficked into the United States through a wide variety of means. Illicit fentanyl is often mixed into other substances such as cocaine or disguised as legitimate prescription pills that can be deadly for an unwitting user. Moreover, far too many Americans are losing their lives to plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin that have vexed us for generations. Addressing international illicit drug production and trafficking, especially of synthetic opioids, to curb one of the deadliest threats to the United States is a top foreign policy priority.
Here in the United States, the illicit drug trade has had a harrowing impact on our families and communities, but its malicious effects extend beyond our borders. In drug producing countries, drug trafficking drives state and regional instability, fuels corruption, and calls into question the state’s legitimacy as the sole arbiter of governance and justice, all of which are prime contributors to internal population displacement and illegal migration.
There are too many regions and too many countries where drug producers and traffickers exert control through violence. And in so doing, they supplant any notion of democratic norms and good governance with brute force and intimidation to secure the freedom of movement they need to pursue criminal activities. Transnational Criminal Organizations and drug traffickers prey on the most vulnerable, not only in their own societies to facilitate their criminal endeavors, but also here in the United States—those suffering from substance use disorder who have little choice but to buy their products and contribute to the traffickers’ obscene wealth.
Illicit drug production and trafficking are global problems that require strong international partnerships to address. They devastate communities around the world by exploiting marginalized communities, driving violence, exacerbating corruption, and harming the environment. In places such as Colombia, illicit drug production and trafficking has led to deforestation, while the improper storage and disposal of precursor chemicals contaminates the soil, aquifers, and waterways.
The Domestic Response to America’s Overdose Crisis
But the work starts at home, where we are expanding access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction, as well as supporting preventive programs that build resilient communities and families to protect children from illicit substances. The American Rescue Plan invested over $5 billion to allow the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Health Resources and Services Administration to expand access to crucial mental health and substance use disorder services. By aligning funding priorities with HHS’ new Overdose Prevention Strategy, treatment is more easily accessible, widely available, and equitable than it has ever been in the United States. Additionally, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced $93 million in grants for over 745 Drug-Free Communities Support Programs working across all fifty states to prevent youth substance use. Another $3.2 million was announced for communities nationwide as part of the Community-Based Coalition Enhancement Grants to Address Local Drug Crisis Program to prevent and reduce the use of opioids and methamphetamines and the misuse of prescription medications among youth ages 12 to 18.
For the first time, harm reduction is a pillar of our response to the drug crisis and an integral component of the continuum of care for substance use disorder. Accordingly, President Biden has proposed a fiscal year 2023 budget containing more than $300 million in harm reduction funding across all agencies. That is an increase of almost $100 million between fiscal year 2022 and 2023.
International Approach and Partnerships for the 21st Century
However, we cannot do this alone. The Biden-Harris administration is committed to close cooperation with our international partners on a holistic approach to counternarcotics. This means looking beyond traditional drug control strategies that primarily focus on interrupting the movement of drugs, to actively pursue policies that address the root causes and harmful consequences of illicit drug markets. A holistic approach includes measures such as depriving drug traffickers of the ability to financially support their operations, addressing poverty, insecurity, and other drivers of participation in illicit economies, and protecting the environment from damage caused by the illicit drug trade. Most importantly, our holistic approach is responsive to the circumstances and conditions in each country; it involves working closely with partner governments to identify shared priorities and to design and implement evidence-based solutions with local buy-in.
The United States recognizes that the eradication of illicit crops and drug interdiction are not sufficient on their own to reduce drug supply over the long term, nor to reduce the underlying drivers, associated violence, and criminality. As a result, in 2021 the United States and our Colombian partners jointly embarked on a plan to address these complex issues.
Beyond traditional supply reduction efforts, we explicitly prioritized comprehensive justice reform, rural development, environmental protection from criminal exploitation, and rural security. Rural communities in Colombia are disproportionately affected by drug trafficking and associated insecurity. Without addressing the long-standing challenges in those areas, and doing so in partnership with the affected communities, our efforts will lack sustainability. US agencies have come together with their Colombian counterparts to implement over seventy projects in three geographic areas prioritized for citizen security and development interventions. In Cáceres, Antioquia, our security investments have contributed to a 40 percent reduction in homicides since January 2021, offering a window into what is possible with this model. Crimes like illegal mining and logging and cocaine production also wreak havoc on Colombia’s environment and jeopardize the health and safety of its people. The clear links between the drug trade and environmental crimes necessitate taking a broader approach.
Critically, and mirroring US domestic policy, we are also working with Colombia on a public health-focused approach to address substance use disorders by investing in treatment programs and drug courts that divert at-risk youth with substance use-related criminal charges from the criminal justice system and into treatment and educational programs.
On the heels of our recent trip to Colombia, we are optimistic about opportunities to collaborate with the new administration on these and other mutual priorities. Shared interests such as anti-corruption and anti-money laundering efforts, police reform, and human rights-oriented programming will strengthen Western Hemisphere democracies and mutually benefit the people of Colombia and the United States.
In October 2021, the United States and Mexico held a High-Level Security Dialogue that opened a new era in security cooperation based on an enduring partnership and guided by shared responsibility. The resulting US-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Heath, and Safe Communities establishes a comprehensive, long-term approach for bilateral actions to better protect the health and safety of our citizens, prevent transborder crime, and bring criminals to justice.
The Framework includes a public health approach to prevent and reduce substance use disorder, while limiting harms associated with addiction and improving access to substance abuse treatment and recovery support. This includes sharing best practices and lessons learned to better understand substance use disorder in both the United States and Mexico.
The Framework also guides increased cooperation to confront the shared threat from fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. Under the Framework, the United States and Mexico committed to working together to expand regulatory and enforcement capability and capacity to control fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, as well as the precursor chemicals used in their illicit production. The two nations further committed to strengthening security at land, air, and sea ports of entry, and to disrupting the capacity of transnational criminal organizations, their illicit supply chains, and financial networks through targeted investigations, prosecutions, account freezes, and seizures.
On October 13, the United States hosted the second High-Level Security Dialogue at the State Department, which produced concrete commitments to reduce drug production and demand in coordination with Mexico, including a joint synthetic drug action plan and indicators to assess our progress.
A Global Challenge That Demands a 21st Century Holistic Response
The shift from organic or plant-based drugs to synthetic substances has opened a Pandora’s box. Drug production no longer requires farmers with vast fields and fertilizers, but simply a small room, a handful of chemicals, and a chemist. Thus, our international counternarcotics cooperation and partners outside of the Western Hemisphere have taken on even greater importance.
As such, we are deepening our engagement with key governments and international organizations. The Department of State is leveraging its tools such as foreign assistance, capacity building, and diplomatic engagement to develop the international architecture to address 21st century criminal enterprises and increase barriers to conducting this illegal trade. For example, during the third US-India Counternarcotics Working Group held in New Delhi this summer, we agreed to expand cooperation on law enforcement, drug demand, and regulatory and policy issues through increased coordination, information-sharing, and knowledge exchanges. At the same time, we are actively engaging with the international community through multilateral channels to share information, exchange best practices, and urge countries to proactively implement regulations such as “know your customer” protocols. Multilateral cooperation, whether through the United Nations, Organization of American States, Group of Seven (G7), or other fora, provides the United States with key opportunities to amplify a holistic counternarcotics strategy.
To deter and disrupt the production and trafficking of illicit synthetic drugs into the United States, the US government must also prevent the misuse of legitimate commercial tools that enable drug trafficking organizations’ business models. Doing so will increase the cost, risk, and difficulties associated with producing and trafficking these drugs. Notably, as these criminal organizations exploit our gaps and vulnerabilities, success requires continuous refinement of our efforts, as in the prime example of precursor chemical supply chains.
Synthetic drugs can be manufactured from chemicals used around the world for legitimate industrial purposes, which makes it easy for criminals to obtain these chemicals and divert them for illegal drug production. These chemicals, along with potent synthetic drugs, are then marketed and sold on the internet, paid for with anonymizing cryptocurrency, mislabeled to disguise their illegal end use, and shipped around the globe. Transnational criminal organizations adapted to China’s class scheduling of fentanyl in 2019—which ended the direct shipment of fentanyl to the United States—by shipping precursor chemicals and shifting production to Mexico. In response, we are committed to working with Mexico and the People’s Republic of China to address our shared challenges stemming from transnational criminal organizations’ exploitation of precursor chemical supply chains.
Additionally, the United States is investing in the development of global tools that will help countries around the world join the fight against drug traffickers. The United Nations Toolkit on Synthetic Drugs offers a suite of legislative, investigative, regulatory, and public health responses to help countries address the threat posed by synthetic drugs and new methods of trafficking. Moreover, confronting borderless crime requires effective, real-time law enforcement cooperation. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has built global intelligence exchange platforms to facilitate case cooperation on global precursor and synthetic drug investigations. The G7 Cybercrime Network provides points of contact available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to respond to urgent requests from members to investigate cyber-enabled crime.
Private industry likewise has an essential part to play in identifying and disrupting criminal activity on their platforms. The INCB spearheads international engagement with industries increasingly misused by traffickers, ranging from the chemical industry to social media and online payment providers. Recently, member states worked with the INCB to develop guidance for countries to prevent the diversion of legal unregulated chemicals for drug manufacturing, including through strong cooperation with the chemical industry.
The global environment of drug production and trafficking has transformed in fundamental ways in recent years to become the most dynamic and complex the United States has ever faced. Our approach must evolve as well. We must address the many factors that lead people to cultivate illicit crops and to produce, traffic, or use illegal drugs, and we are eager to apply a holistic approach to counternarcotics strategies with all our partner nations to address this shared challenge. Along with our partners, we will expand access to recovery and treatment services for those with substance use disorders, bring narcotraffickers to justice, protect the environment, and address the root causes that lead people into illicit economies. We understand the drug problem is exceedingly complex and manifests itself in unique ways in each country, and the United States stands ready to work with our partners to adapt the approach described above in a way that is appropriate for the needs and circumstances of each country. Together we will build a safer and more prosperous future for all of our people.