During what was at times an emotional address in the East Room of the White House last week, US President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis currently engulfing America a public health emergency. Addressing an audience that included members of the public whose lives had been affected by opioid abuse, Trump not only declared that the US would overcome the problem, but that the country would defeat addiction more widely. Before using the fact that 90% of heroin consumed in the US passes through Mexico as an opportunity to promote his pet border wall project, Trump outlined a range of measures intended to clamp down on the importation of cheap synthetic opioids from China and parts of Latin America that he claims are increasingly fuelling the crisis. He said Homeland Security and the US Postal Service would increase inspections of packages coming into the country in a bid to identify and seize synthetic opioids, and that the Department of Justice would continue to take action against Chinese drug traffickers smuggling the substances into America. Trump also promised to raise the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping when the two leaders meet later this month.
Some critics were quick to voice concern that the measures Trump announced to tackle the opioid crisis did not go far enough, with the Washington Post pointing out that more people are currently dying as a result of opioid abuse in the US than lost their lives during the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The paper noted that US government data shows that 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in America in 2016, the equivalent of 175 a day. As Trump said during his address, this means more people are dying as a result of overdoses than from gun murders and motor vehicle accidents combined. According to separate data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the numbers of overdose deaths that involved opioids of some description quadrupled every year between 1999 and 2015. But while it may well be the case that more money needs to be spent on treatment, counselling and support for addicts, it is hard to deny that synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are playing an increasing role in America’s opioid crisis, and should be aggressively targeted as a means of ensuring the situation does not deteriorate further.
Of the 64,000 overdose deaths in the US last year, the CDC estimates that more than 20,000 involved synthetic opioids, a great deal of which were attributable to fentanyl or its derivatives. Fentanyl, which is said to be as many as 50 times more potent that morphine and is prescribed legally to patients as a pain management medication, is increasingly being sold by street dealers in its own right as well as being mixed with heroin, cocaine or other drugs. Illicit traders either divert legitimate supplies of the synthetic opioid from pharmaceutical supply chains, or import large quantities into the US from illegal producers in countries such as China or South America. The substance is attractive to traffickers and dealers on account of the fact that a small amount can make many doses. It is so potent, that a dose the size of a grain of sand can be enough to kill. As a consequence, any miscalculation by traffickers or dealers mixing the substance or any of its derivatives with other drugs can have deadly consequences.
While the threat posed by fentanyl to heroin users and other addicts has been well documented in the US for some time now, with the FBI issuing a warning to addicts about the dangers posed by the drug back in 2015, a growing body of evidence suggests that the substance’s popularity might be spreading to Europe. Attracted by the fact that a small amount of the synthetic opioid is enough to make a large number of individual doses, European traffickers and dealers appear to be getting wise to the potential profit that can be made from fentanyl, and that its potency can make it easier to smuggle than more traditional drugs, which need to be transported in much larger consignments.
A study published in the summer by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA) revealed that the number of non-fatal overdoses and deaths linked to fentanyl across Europe are on the rise, and that synthetic opioids more widely are causing greater harm to the continent’s drug users. While the problem has reached nowhere near the scale seen in the US, police across Europe have noticed a rising trend of fentanyl being used to bulk out batches of heroin. In the UK, this has led to a rise in the number of overdose deaths linked to the drug, which some addicts are now actively seeking out due to its strength. With industrial quantities of the substance being pumped out of illegal Chinese drug factories and its growing popularity among dealers and addicts alike, it looks likely that the devastation wreaked by fentanyl and other drugs like it is going to get much worse before getting better.
Taking cocaine will not cure people struck down with the coronavirus, French government warns public
Authorities in France have been forced to inform the public that taking cocaine will not cure people infected with the coronavirus.
Taking to Twitter on Sunday, the French Ministry for Solidarity and Health told its followers that cocaine is not only ineffective when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, but is also a highly addictive drug that can cause serious harm to users’ health.
The government department was seeking to counter fake news circulating on social media that taking the drug could cure or prevent the virus, including doctored news stories that appeared to confirm the drug’s effectiveness at fighting the disease.
The ministry’s Twitter post included a link to a government information page that provided further guidance on disinformation circulating about the coronavirus outbreak.
As well as encouraging those worried about the coronavirus to start taking cocaine, online trolls have also suggested that bleach can also help fight the disease.
In a post on Twitter that has attracted many thousands of engagements, @Jordan_Sather_ told his followers: “Would you look at that. Not only is chlorine dioxide (aka ‘MMS’) an effective cancer cell killer, it can wipe out coronavirus too.
“No wonder YouTube has been censoring basically every single video where I discuss it over the last year.”
In August of 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about that dangers of consuming bleach, noting: “Drinking any… chlorine dioxide products can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and symptoms of severe dehydration.”
As well as warning about cocaine’s inability to fight the coronavirus, the French government has also told members of the public that spraying bleach or alcohol on their bodies will not neutralise viruses they have already been infected with.
Elsewhere, US Vodka maker Tito’s Homemade was last week forced to urge people not to make DIY hand sanitiser out of its products.
Responding to one of its customers who said they had done just that, the company said on Twitter: “Per the CDC [Centres for Disease Control and Prevention], hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC. Please see attached for more information.”
For its part, the World Health Organisation, which today officially categorised the coronavirus as a pandemic, has published a webpage dispelling misinformation about the disease, noting that the virus cannot be killed of avoided by taking a hot bath or using hand dryers.
Californian border officers catch Mexican man with enough fentanyl to kill 1.2 million people
Customs workers in California have arrested a Mexican man after finding enough fentanyl stashed in his vehicle to kill 1.2 million people.
Officers from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pulled the man over during a traffic stop while he was travelling in a Toyota Camry close to the city of Escondido.
During a search of the man’s vehicle, a sniffer dog indicated that the car contained illicit drugs.
After investigating further, CBP agents discovered several secret compartments that had been created in both the front and rear seats of the vehicle.
These were found to be concealing 18 foil-wrapped packages that tests later confirmed to contain nearly 19kgs of cocaine and just over 2.4kgs of fentanyl.
In total, the drugs found in the man’s vehicle had an estimated street value of almost $560,000.
The 49-year-old Mexican was handed over to officers from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, while the vehicle was seized by US Border Patrol.
Last week, CBP said agents working in Arizona close to the US border with Mexico had detained two 15-year-old US nationals who were alleged to have been attempting to smuggle fentanyl through a checkpoint while travelling as passengers in a van.
The occupants of the vehicle were referred for searches after a sniffer dog alerted its handlers to the fact that drugs might be present.
On further inspection, officers found the two teenagers had a combined total of more than 1kg of fentanyl taped to their legs, roughly equal to 540,000 lethal doses.
The two juveniles were held by police on drug smuggling charges, while the fentanyl they were carrying and the vehicle they were travelling in were seized.
As little as two milligrams of fentanyl can prove fatal for humans if absorbed through the skin, inhaled or swallowed.
In April of last year, an internal memo obtained by military news site Task & Purpose revealed that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was considering reclassifying fentanyl as “a weapon of mass destruction”.
The DHS said in its memo that the toxicity of the drug made it a suitable candidate to be categorised as a non-conventional chemical weapon, adding: “Fentanyl’s high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking non-conventional materials for a chemical weapons attack.”
DHS Assistant Secretary for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction James McDonnell wrote: “In July 2018, the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assessed that… fentanyl is very likely a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals.”
European crackdown on illicit pharmaceutical traffickers breaks up 12 organised crime networks
A Europe-wide operation targeting illicit pharmaceutical traffickers has resulted in the dismantling of 12 organised crime networks and 165 arrests.
Supported by Europol, the third iteration of Operation MISMED involved customs, law enforcement and health and regulatory authorities in France, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Britain and the US, among other countries.
In total, the third Operation MISMED saw investigators seize almost 36 million units of medicine, including pseudoephedrine, anti-cancer drugs, antihistamines, anxiolytics, erectile dysfunction tablets, hormone and metabolic regulators, narcotics, painkillers, antioestrogens, antivirals, hypnotics and doping substances.
The initiative, which took place between July and October last year, saw assets worth almost €1.5 million ($1.66 million) recovered, and some €7.9 million confiscated from the criminal organisations targeted in the operation.
In a statement outlining the success of the effort, Europol outlined a range of worrying new trends in the trafficking of illicit pharmaceuticals across Europe, including a growing market for oncologic medicines stolen from hospitals.
The agency also said that Asia remains the main source of illicit medicines and doping products that are sold in Europe.
“Medicines are diverted from the legal supply chain by wholesalers and resold to criminal groups,” Europol said.
“Medicines are illegally obtained with forged or stolen medical prescriptions, with or without the help of doctors and pharmacists, and then resold to criminal groups or individuals directly.”
Over the course of the three years it has been running, Operation MISMED has resulted in 123 million units of illegal medicines and doping substances worth €500 million being taken off the streets, the arrest of 600 suspects, and the breakup of 49 organised crime groups.
The first iteration of the initiative, which took place back in 2017, resulted in the seizure of 75 million units of medicine and doping substances with a combined estimated street value of over €230 million.
The operation also led to the launch of 205 separate investigations and the identification of 277 suspects, of whom 111 were arrested.
Operation MISMED 2, which as carried out between April and October in 2018, saw the seizure of smuggled medicines estimated to be worth more than €165 million, as well as the arrest of 435 people suspected of being involved in the illicit trafficking of misused medicines.
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