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An illicit trade in synthetics is fuelling America’s opioid public health crisis

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overdose deaths in British Columbia

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.

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Colombian and Spanish police smash two drug labs capable of producing two tonnes of cocaine a month

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Colombian and Spanish police smash two drug labs

Police in Spain have teamed up with their counterparts in Colombia to shut down two clandestine cocaine processing facilities said to have been capable of pumping out two tonnes of the drug every month.

One of the factories was located in the Spanish municipality of Casasbuenas in the province of Toledo, while the other was found deep in the Colombian jungle and was controlled by Front 21 of the FARC dissidents.

At the Spanish site, investigators arrested four Colombian nationals who are said to have been brought into the country specifically to turn coca base into high-purity cocaine.

Agents from Spain’s elite Grupo Especial de Operaciones (GEO) unit also detained an armed individual whose job it was to guard the facility and monitor the work of the four Colombian cocaine “cooks”.

As well as making the arrests, Spanish officers also seized 150kgs of coca base, 7kgs of cocaine that had been processed and was ready for distribution, seven tonnes of chemicals used as precursors for the production of cocaine hydrochloride, a gun and more than €100,000 ($110,744) in cash.

Meanwhile on the Colombian side of the operation, another secret laboratory was raided in the jungle in Tolima that was used for the processing of cocaine base paste and cocaine hydrochloride.

Police in Colombia seized 260 litres of coca base that was being processed, 400kgs of coca leaf, and a large quantity of precursor chemicals.

In total, nine people were arrested in Spain, including the leader of the organisation and his lieutenant, who controlled another centre for the adulteration and cutting of cocaine in the province of Guadalajara.

One of the suspects is reported to have owned a network of front companies that the gang used to import coal from South America that had been impregnated with cocaine.

Once the coal had entered Spain, it would be transferred to processing plants where experts would use special technique to extract the cocaine before preparing it for distribution.

A joint intranational investigation into the gang’s activities was launched in the first few months of this year when authorities in Colombia learned that a Colombian national was plotting to set up a conspiracy to smuggle cocaine hidden in different legal merchandise into Spain before using clandestine factories to extract the drugs and ready them for sale.

Back in May, it was reported that Spanish investigators had broken up a Colombian gang that impregnated cocaine into plastic pellets before smuggling them to Madrid and Toledo for extraction.

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UK drug gang bosses jailed for importing huge quantities of cocaine and heroin in frozen chickens

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The leaders of a British drug trafficking network who masterminded a plot to smuggle massive quantities of cocaine and heroin into the UK concealed in shipments of frozen chicken have been jailed for a total of nearly 44 years.

Wasim Hussain and Nazarat Hussain, who are not related, were convicted at Birmingham Crown Court of establishing a string of businesses involved in the importation of chicken from the Netherlands as a front for their drug smuggling conspiracy.

The gang bosses were caught after customs officers discovered heroin and cocaine worth an estimated £5 million ($6.45 million) hidden in chicken shipments on three separate occasions.

After launching an investigation, officers from the National Crime Agency (NCA), which is often referred to as the UK’s FBI, identified 16 similar shipments they suspect may have been used to import drugs.

After the interception of the first two shipments, the gang would set up a new cover company as part of an effort to cover its tracks and press on with its drugs importation plot.

In a separate conspiracy launched after the interception of two of their shipments and the arrest of two gang members, the drug kingpins paid two crooked baggage handlers to help them import 3kgs of high-purity cocaine on a flight from Brazil to London Heathrow.

The leaders of the gang were finally apprehended when Dutch police helped the NCA intercept a third shipment of drugs hidden in a consignment of chicken.

Sentencing the men for importing at least 300kgs of class A drugs into the UK and several other offences, Judge Roderick Henderson jailed Nazarat Hussain, 36, for 29-and-a-half years.

Wasim Hussain, 34, was handed a sentence of 14 years and four months.

In a statement, NCA Branch Operations Manager Colin Williams said: “Throughout the course of this investigation, which has gone on for more than three years, we have systematically dismantled an organised crime group that was involved in the importation and distribution of class A drugs across the West Midlands.

“As well as drugs, the gang also attempted to source firearms, presumably to be used to threaten others in support of their criminality.

“The investigation has uncovered links to criminal networks in London and the Netherlands, and our partnership with the Dutch police was crucial.

“We worked our way through the group until we managed to reach the two men at the very top – Wasim Hussain and Nazarat Hussain.”

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EU citizens took illicit drugs worth €30 billion in 2017 as violence and corruption linked to narcotics trade rose

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EU citizens took illicit drugs worth €30 billion in 2017

A joint report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol has revealed that people living in EU member states spent in excess of €30 billion ($33 billion) on illegal substances in 2017.

That figure was €6 billion up on the previous year.

According to the 2019 EU Drug Markets Report, 39% of this total was spent on cannabis, 31% on cocaine, 25% on heroin and 5% on amphetamines and MDMA.

In the third joint assessment of the European illicit drug market conducted by the two agencies, the EMCDDA and Europol highlight the importance of Europe both as a target market for international trafficking cartels, and as a region in which illicit substances are manufactured.

Researchers working om the report found that violence and corruption linked to the European drug market are rising, and that the illicit trade in illegal substances across the 28-nation bloc is linked to other forms of serious and organised criminality such as human trafficking and terrorism.

The study states that globalisation, technology and new criminal tools are driving and facilitating drug developments across the EU, in what the report’s authors described as “a more globally connected and technologically enabled” market.

The European cannabis trade was worth an estimated minimum of €11.6 billion in 2017, making it the largest drug market in Europe, the study found.

The heroin market, which accounts for the largest share of drug-related harm across the EU, was worth an estimated minimum of €7.4 billion that year, while the trade in cocaine had an estimated minimum retail value of €9.1 billion.

Elsewhere, the report revealed that the production of synthetic drugs such as amphetamine, MDMA and methamphetamine across the EU is evolving as a result of such as advances in production methods and the availability of the source materials from which they are made.

Unveiling the report, Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, said in a statement: “Organised crime groups are quick to seize new opportunities for financial gain and are increasingly exploiting technological and logistical innovations to expand their activities across international borders.

“At the same time, drugs are now more accessible to European consumers, often via social media and the internet. Today’s report proves once again that the illicit drug market remains a threat to the health and security of our citizens.

“We will continue working relentlessly with our Member States and international partners on strengthening our fight against drugs in all its aspects; for our youth, our citizens, our society.”

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