‘Cheap and easy’ synthetic drugs are ‘changing drug markets with lethal results’, according to UNODC’s World drug report 2023. Fentanyl has ‘drastically altered the opioid market in North America with dire consequences’, it says, with the majority of the country’s approximately 90,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2021 involving illegally manufactured fentanyls.
Fentanyl’s potency means reduced costs and legal risks for traffickers, as they can ‘more easily conceal smaller quantities of pure fentanyl in place of larger volumes of heroin’, the document states – ‘It has been estimated that as little as a few tons of pure fentanyl would be needed to satisfy the annual consumption of illegally sourced opioids in the United States, in contrast to about 50 metric tons of heroin.’ The purity-adjusted, low-level wholesale price of illegal fentanyl powder fell by more than half between 2016 and 2021, it points out.
The Taliban’s ban on opium cultivation in Afghanistan could result in a drastically reduced harvest this year, the document adds, which may see a further shift towards synthetic drug manufacture – the country is already a major producer of methamphetamine. There are also signs that the war in Ukraine – which has already displaced some traditional trafficking routes for heroin and cocaine – could be triggering an expansion in the manufacture of synthetic drugs in the region.
Based on new data, UNODC estimates the global number of people who inject drugs at 13.2m as of 2021, 18 per cent up on previous estimates. The total number of people who used drugs in 2021 is estimated at almost 300m, an increase of almost a quarter on the previous decade, while the number of people with a drug use disorder is now thought to be almost 40m – a figure that has ‘skyrocketed’ by 45 per cent over a decade.
However, the demand for treating drug problems remains ‘largely unmet’, with only one in five people with drug use disorders in treatment in 2021 and ‘widening disparities’ in access to treatment across regions. ‘Public health, prevention, and access to treatment services must be prioritised worldwide, or drug challenges will leave more people behind,’ says UNODC. More than 70 per cent of people in treatment in Africa are now under 35, it adds.
‘We are witnessing a continued rise in the number of people suffering from drug use disorders worldwide, while treatment is failing to reach all of those who need it,’ said UNODC executive director Ghada Waly. ‘Meanwhile, we need to step up responses against drug trafficking rings that are exploiting conflicts and global crises to expand illicit drug cultivation and production, especially of synthetic drugs, fuelling illicit markets and causing greater harm to people and communities.’
(News June 2023): Better data sharing needed to tackle opioid crisis, warns Cranstoun report published in response to accounts of parts of the UK’s heroin supply being contaminated by synthetic opioids.
(News August 2023): OHID issues new guidance on dealing with synthetic opioid threats.
(Partner Update, Turning Point, August 2023): Synthetic opioids and reducing risk.
Cranstoun’s peer-led naloxone team at the DDN Conference 2023