The issue of opioids will be center stage in Washington D.C., where a series of events will take place at the White House, on Capitol Hill, and at a variety of venues across town. The timing for these meetings is critical and U.S. government collaboration with the right partners is key to combat the growing threat of opioids.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were about 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 — more Americans than died during the Vietnam War and significantly more than the 43,000 who died during the HIV/AIDS epidemic peak in 1995.
But tackling this problem is not simply a matter of unlocking U.S. resources, it’s about continuing to support and partner with the United Nations, specifically agencies like the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Health Organization.
Fortunately, over the past year, the U.S. and UN have collaborated to combat the scourge of opioids and synthetic opioids like fentanyl — a drug 50 times more potent than heroin, which was responsible for at least half the people who died of opioid overdoses in 2016.
For example, per a request from the U.S. government, the UNODC voted last year to “schedule” the two leading chemicals used to illegally produce fentanyl in the U.S., adding them to an international control list.
At the time, the State Department spokeswoman said, “this vote will make it harder for the criminals that are illicitly producing fentanyl to access the necessary resources. It will require countries to regulate the production, sale, and export of the precursors to fentanyl, and to criminalize sale or trafficking outside of those regulations.”
Similarly, last December, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for carfentanil, an exceedingly powerful drug 100 times more potent than fentanyl, to be subject to the highest or strictest drug control classifications.
Additional control under these classifications imposes the strongest possible regulations by prohibiting production and supply of substances except under license for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research. In the case of carfentanil, there would be no indication for human use.
The technical assistance the UN provides to other nations also leverages our own efforts. For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration says 93 percent of heroin analyzed by the agency in 2015 came from Mexico, more than double the amount from five years before.
For the last several years, UNODC has created a system for monitoring illicit crop cultivation in Mexico. Through this project, which uses satellite imagery and aerial photographs to depict where cultivation is taking place, the Mexican government is able to view exact locations where illicit crops are grown. This information in turn helped the Mexican army destroy nearly 200,000 plots of poppy in 2017, up 22 percent from the previous year.
Moving forward, Richard Baum — former Acting Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy — recently noted that global cooperation is central to addressing the U.S. opioid epidemic.
This means continued close cooperation with UN agencies like UNODC and the WHO; organizations on the front lines of the opioid battle and doing everything they can to help the U.S. defeat one of the deadliest enemies in a generation.
Jordie Hannum is the executive director of the Better World Campaign, which is a nonpartisan organization that works to strengthen the relationship between the United States and the United Nations through outreach, communications, and advocacy.