Confirming recent findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States and other agencies around the world, the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime said in its annual report that new synthetic drugs, sometime compounded or combined with other substances, are becoming a dangerous, often lethal, menace globally.
The 2014 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment, published in May by the UN office, said that what it termed “new psychoactive substances” have joined other amphetamine-type stimulants such as the “recreational” drugs ecstasy and methamphetamine. These known drugs, the UN said, are already “more widely used than cocaine, opium or heroin.”
“There is a dynamic and unprecedented global expansion of the synthetic drugs market both in scope and variety,” Jean-Luc Lemahieu, director for policy analysis and public affairs at the UN drug and crime agency, said in a statement when the report was released. “New substances are quickly created and marketed, challenging law enforcement efforts to keep up with the traffickers and curb public health risks.”
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal research organization, encountered one of the new substances in the summer of 2013 in Rhode Island, after 12 people died of what appeared to be drug overdoses. After much tracking of victims and laboratory research, the American experts identified the lethal drug as acetyl fentanyl, a synthetic opioid (defined as a fentanyl analog) that had not been documented in illicit drug use or overdose deaths and is not available as a prescription drug, making it something of a mystery. The disease control center, which also tracks overdoses from legal prescription and over-the-counter medications, said that in 2010, 60 percent of drug overdoses deaths were related to legal pharmaceuticals.
The World Health Organization describes legal opioids as “analgesics, such as codeine and morphine, and antiepileptics, such as lorazepam and phenobarbital” — controlled drugs considered to be essential medicines for treating severe pain and conditions that do not respond to other drugs. Such ingredients or compounds may also figure in drugs to treat insomnia.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, based in Vienna, reported that even for the known drug methamphetamine, trafficking is rising around the world, with reports from Central Asia, India and North America prominent. “Methamphetamine, which can seriously harm users, continues to spread in Asia, posing a growing challenge to health care providers and drug control authorities dealing with large youthful populations.”
Synthetic drugs are considered appealing to young people looking for new “highs” without understanding the potentially fatal medical risks. Asia is now the largest markets for amphetamine stimulants, the UN office said in its report. Since 2009, the report added, about 86 percent of these stimulants, now often trafficked through West Africa, were seized at Western European and Japanese airports on their way to buyers in Japan and Malaysia. New synthetic drugs only add to the burden of identifying dangers and criminal traffickers.
“Marketed — often wrongly — as ‘legal highs’ and ‘designer drugs,’ NPS [new psychoactive substances] are proliferating, but in the absence of an international framework, responses to the problem vary significantly from country to country,” the UN report said. “None of the 348 NPS reported globally in over 90 countries at the end of 2013 is currently under international control.”
The UN drug control agency noted in the report that chemicals or other substances hard to identify are being mixed into known amphetamines — as the US case in Rhode Island ultimately proved. “Evidence from almost all regions of the world indicates that tablets sold as ecstasy or methamphetamine contain substances other than the touted active ingredients,” the report said, adding that “increasingly, they comprise chemical cocktails that pose unforeseen public health challenges. Emergency services may therefore find themselves unable to identify life-threatening substances and powerless to administer the proper medical treatment.”
Among the substances that have appeared in new compounds are veterinary ingredients and khat (or qat), a drug derived from a plant leaf that has been widely used in East Asia and parts of the Arabian peninsula. Khat, the report found, “is being trafficked from East African countries, such as Ethiopia and Kenya, to European destinations, such as the UK and the Netherlands, and even as far afield as North America. Saudi Arabia has reported by far the largest khat seizures in the Middle East. Lately, khat has also been seized in East and South-East Asia, as cultivation of the plant has extended to that region.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.