For many, fentanyl is a uniquely American problem — one that primarily stems from the over-prescription of opioids to treat pain symptoms. Others may consider it to be a North American issue, as Canada has also been hit hard by the scourge. Indeed, powerful organized crime groups, especially ones in Mexico, have recognized the potential for vast profits in the fentanyl trade in the two countries. But closer inspection reveals a growing ripple in the use of fentanyl (a term I use generically to refer not only to fentanyl itself but also to carfentanil and other fentanyl-related substances) across the globe. At present, the phenomenon outside the United States and Canada remains tied to sales on the dark web and supplies that arrive by mail, but the same factors that have made fentanyl attractive to Mexican cartels will also make it appealing to other organized crime groups around the world, especially those already involved in the opiate trade. In such a situation, security and health authorities everywhere will have their work cut out for them as they seek to hold back a drug that is cheap and easy to make, easy to transport and easy to sell.
Powerful economic incentives drive the global markets for illegal drugs, especially as the prices some drugs can fetch far outweigh the costs of their production. This potential for huge profits entices many people, from individuals to powerful organized crime groups, to assume the risks of producing, trafficking and selling such substances. Today, fentanyl — a game-changing drug that is cheap and easy to produce, compact to smuggle and incredibly lucrative — is on course to spread farther around the world.
The Mexican Model
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration's national drug threat assessment, Mexican organized crime groups have succeeded in cornering the U.S. heroin market in recent years, supplying around 90 percent of the heroin for sale in the United States. Record crops of opium poppies in Mexico have aided these efforts, as have Colombian chemists who taught Mexican organized crime groups how to synthesize higher-quality heroin. Due to its strength, Mexican heroin can be snorted or smoked, which lowers the threshold for first-time users who might be scared off by the thought of injecting the drug.
Mexican heroin dealers have also expanded their distribution network to include home delivery, saving users the previous inconvenience of having to brave inner-city drug markets to buy the product. Today, however, one can call or text a number and arrange the prompt delivery of bags or balloons of heroin to suburban neighborhoods — also lowering the threshold for first-time users. Ultimately, heroin has ceased to be an inner-city problem, as it has spread to encompass every socio-economic, age and ethnic group.
In addition to manufacturing and selling heroin, Mexican organized crime groups have also profited off the closure of U.S. "pill mills" — or doctors, clinics or pharmacies that prescribe or dispense excessive amounts of painkillers — by trafficking and selling real or counterfeit prescription opiates such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. But their influence in the illicit opiate trade in North America didn't stop there.
In the mid-2000s, Mexican cartels began to experiment with the manufacture of fentanyl. Authorities, for instance, traced a spike in opioid deaths in 2005-2006 in the United States to a large-scale drug lab in Toluca, Mexico. While Mexican officials put a stop to that specific lab's operations, it nevertheless indicated a way forward for Mexican organized crime groups, which soon began to produce increasing quantities of fentanyl, often acquiring the ingredients to make the drug from the same sources in China that provide the precursor chemicals that supply Mexican super meth labs. Alternatively, some Mexican criminal groups have purchased finished fentanyl from Chinese sources.
It is possible to synthesize fentanyl almost anytime, anywhere if producers have access to the precursor chemicals. It does not require a particular climate like plant-based drugs or acres of space to grow.
Cheap and Easy
In the end, heroin certainly offered Mexican cartels massive profits, but there are several other factors that have made fentanyl an attractive alternative to it and other drugs they manufacture, traffic and sell.
First, fentanyl is simple, cheap and highly profitable. For one, the drug is easier to synthesize than methamphetamines. Moreover, the DEA estimates that it costs somewhere between $1,400 and $3,000 to synthesize a kilogram of fentanyl, which can fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million on the street. This makes fentanyl the most profitable drug that Mexican cartels produce or traffic. And because fentanyl is so inexpensive, Mexican cartels have attempted to pass it off as other, more expensive drugs, such as heroin or prescription opiates.
Second, it is possible to synthesize fentanyl almost anytime, anywhere if producers have access to the precursor chemicals. It does not require a particular climate like plant-based drugs or acres of space to grow. Third, because small amounts of fentanyl are so potent, it is compact enough to transport illegally: Smuggling one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fentanyl is roughly the equivalent of smuggling 50 kilograms of heroin (although U.S. law enforcement officers have seized shipments of over a hundred kilograms of fentanyl from Mexican cartel groups). Naturally, this potency also makes fentanyl highly addictive — and deadly.
Spreading Farther Afield
An increase in fentanyl use has already caused alarm in places like Australia, the United Kingdom and Estonia based on mail shipments that largely originate in China, although there are other sources as well. For example, there are strong indications that North Korea is selling fentanyl and other synthetic drugs to obtain badly needed hard currency. And Mexican cartels have frequently trafficked methamphetamines and cocaine to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, so it would not be surprising if they also use these same trafficking networks to push fentanyl into other markets. There is also room for other organized crime groups to muscle into the fentanyl trade.
The same factors that attract Mexican organized crime groups will also make fentanyl appealing to organized crime groups involved in opiate trafficking in other parts of the world, including Asian organized crime groups or the Russian, Balkan and Italian groups that are responsible for much of the heroin trafficking in Russia and Europe. Many of these groups currently realize some of their profits from the heroin or tramadol they traffic and sell, but they have to purchase these substances from producers in places like Afghanistan and Southeast Asia or via middlemen. These groups also have to smuggle opiates over thousands of kilometers from the production areas to retail markets.
From a practical standpoint, switching to smuggling highly pure fentanyl would allow organized crime groups to significantly reduce the volume of material they must smuggle over large distances. Following the pattern that has occurred in North America, fentanyl could then be pressed into pills or placed into faux heroin nearer to the point of retail distribution. It would also not be surprising to see well-resourced organizations such as Balkan, Russian or Italian organized crime groups begin manufacturing fentanyl in their own laboratories, which would allow them to grab an even larger percentage of the profit pool. They could then use their established opiate sales networks to sell the product at the retail level, much as Mexican cartels have done.
The same factors that attract Mexican organized crime groups will also make fentanyl appealing to organized crime groups involved in opiate trafficking in other parts of the world.
Room for Geographic Expansion
But there is also room for geographic expansion. According to the United Nations' 2018 World Drug Report, 58 percent of the world's opiate users reside in Asia, compared to 17 percent in Europe and 15 percent in the Americas. The report also notes that while North America has a prevalence rate of 0.8 percent for opiate use, the Middle East and its vicinity have double that rate at 1.6 percent. There — as well as in Africa — the opiate that users abuse most often is counterfeit tramadol, but considerable opportunity exists for the introduction of more profitable counterfeit tramadol pills that feature cheap fentanyl instead of opium-based tramadol hydrochloride as the active ingredient. Indeed, illicit drug producers could peddle fentanyl-laced tramadol pills in the Middle East and Africa in much the same way that traffickers have sold counterfeit oxycodone and hydrocodone pills containing fentanyl in North America.
Ultimately, the trends go to show that fentanyl has not yet reached its global peak. And given how cheap and easy it is to produce, smuggle and sell fentanyl, law enforcement, health agencies and social services organizations across the globe will have to remain vigilant about the deadly peril that appears destined to arrive on their shores.