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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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DEA launches crackdown on Mexican ‘super methamphetamine’ distribution hubs in major cities across US

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DEA launches crackdown on Mexican ‘super methamphetamine’ distribution hubs

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has announced a new operation that will see investigators look to eliminate methamphetamine “transportation hubs” across America and block the distribution of the deadly drug.

Operation Crystal Shield will see the DEA target hubs to which large shipments of methamphetamine are trafficked before being broken up and sold onto dealers across the United States.

The agency said it has identified the locations of eight of these hubs, noting that it will concentrate its efforts on major smuggling operations based in Atlanta, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Phoenix and the St Louis Division.

These locations are said to have accounted for 75% of all methamphetamine seizures made in the US last year.

The DEA noted that almost all methamphetamine currently sold in the US comes through major ports of entry along its southern border having been made in industrial-scale labs in Mexico.

Much of the methamphetamine produced in these labs is almost 100% pure and is a far cry from old-fashioned so-called “shake-and-bake” version of the drug that used to be widely made in domestic US labs.

The huge volumes of Mexican “super meth” flooding into the US has resulted in the price of the drug falling dramatically over recent years.

Once smuggled into the US, increasingly in liquid form to avoid the attention of law enforcement agents, large shipments of the drug are transported across the country by tractor trailers and personal vehicles to the transfer hubs the DEA is targeting.

In a statement announcing the new crackdown, DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said: “Methamphetamine is by far the most prevalent illegal drug being sold on the streets of our community, and therefore warrants a focused plan of attack.

“Meth trafficking makes up more than 60% of the federal drug cases we prosecute in the Western District of Missouri.

“Operation Crystal Shield provides a strategy to stanch the flow of methamphetamine being smuggled into our state by the Mexican cartels.

“If we can reduce the supply of methamphetamine, we can reduce the violence and other criminal activity associated with drug trafficking.”

Earlier this month, authorities San Francisco announced the opening of a new “drug sobering centre” primarily aimed at methamphetamine users suffering from the side effects of taking the substance.

In January, a study published by JAMA Network Open revealed that use of methamphetamine is rocketing across the US, with the number urine samples testing positive for the drug rising from about 1.4% in 2013 to around 8.4% last year.

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Illinois court jails female dark web fentanyl dealer known as ‘Drug Llama’ for 13 years

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‘Drug Llama’ dark web fentanyl dealer

A female dark web trader known as “the Drug Llama” has been jailed for 13 years by an Illinois court after pleading guilty to selling fentanyl on the now-defunct Dream Market illicit marketplace and money laundering.

Melissa Scanlan, 32, was charged with a series of offences, including distributing fentanyl, misbranding drugs, international money laundering, and causing death by selling fentanyl.

Scanlan’s co-accused Brandon Arias, 34, was jailed for nine years in October for his role in the conspiracy.

Prosecutors said the pair sold as many 1,000 fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl pills every week on the dark web over the two years their conspiracy lasted, and raked in over $100,000 that they split equally.

After setting up a profile on the Dream Market platform using the name “the Drug Llama”, the pair distributed the synthetic opioid tablets to customers across the US between October 2016 to August 2018.

As well as drug distribution, Scanlan’s was said by prosecutors of taken part in an international money laundering conspiracy with Mexican cartel members, and to have sold fentanyl tablets to a woman who later died.

Speaking after Scanlan was sentenced, US Attorney Steven Weinhoeft commented: “Criminals like Melissa Scanlan who recklessly flood our communities with opioids may think they can evade detection in the shadowy corners and back alleys of the internet.

“But they will find no quarter there. Where they go, we will follow. With the collaboration of outstanding investigators at our partner agencies, we will use every tool and method available to find these people and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Weinhoeft went on to say that the case underlined the need for Congress to permanently criminalise fentanyl analogues.

At the end of January, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to extend for 15 months a temporary ban of fentanyl derivatives.

Without the bill, the outlawing of fentanyl analogues implemented by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) back in 2018 would have expired this month, which would have resulted in a range of deadly synthetic opioids suddenly becoming legal and completely unregulated.

The US Justice Department had hoped to win a permanent ban on these types of substances from Congress, and was looking to secure a change in the law that would permanently list all fentanyl analogues in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.

At the beginning of last month, a study published in the JAMA Network Open journal revealed that use of fentanyl and methamphetamine were soaring across the US.

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Catalonian police smash gang that hid 1.5 tonnes of cocaine in A4 paper boxes

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Catalonian police smash gang that trafficked drugs into Spain

Police in Spain’s Catalonia have taken part in an operation that resulted in the arrest of 14 members of a suspected drug trafficking gang after the discovery of nearly 1.5 tonnes of cocaine that had been hidden in boxes of A4 paper.

A Europol-backed investigation into the gang, which resulted in 10 of its members being jailed, was launched back in December 2018 when 1 413kgs of cocaine was found at a business premises outside Barcelona.

The drugs, which had been hidden in the boxes before being shipped into Spain from Brazil, were first discovered when one of the firm’s employees accidentally dropped one of the packages.

After arresting two people in connection with the find, police were able to identify 10 members of a criminal organisation that was involved in the trafficking of large quantities of cocaine from Brazil to Spain.

The network behind the conspiracy was also found to have been running a sophisticated money laundering operation, which they used to conceal the profits made from the drugs importation business.

Members of the gang are said to have set up several different front companies, making investments in real estate businesses and fashion stores in Barcelona.

They also employed mules to make multiple intermittent small deposits at local bank branches.

The operation that led to the disruption of the gang culminated at the beginning of this month with an operation in which Catalan investigators and officers from Policía Nacional carried out 13 raids on residential and business properties.

In one raid on a property on the Balearic Island of Mahon, law enforcement agents found quantities of cash in several currencies, mobile phones, four simulated weapons, three cars, and two marijuana plantations.

“Two Europol experts were deployed for on-the-spot support to extract data from the mobile phones of two of the detainees. A member of Spain’s Europol National Unit also assisted during the action day,” Europol said in a statement.

Last week, researchers at the UK’s University of Surrey revealed that they had developed an experimental fingerprint test that could be used to see if an individual had either taken or handled cocaine.

Dr Melanie Bailey from the University of Surrey said: “We think this research is really significant as our laboratory test using high resolution mass spectrometry can tell the difference between a person who has touched a drug and someone who has actually consumed it – just by taking their fingerprints.”

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