Mobilizing an International Response to the Opioid Crisis: U.S. Acts Through the United Nations

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INL’s senior bureau official, James Walsh, casting an official U.S. vote at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
INL’s senior bureau official, James Walsh, casting an official U.S. vote at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

Mobilizing an International Response to the Opioid Crisis: U.S. Acts Through the United Nations

Last month in Vienna, countries met during the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to tackle the world’s most pressing drug-control challenges. These include, as we in the United States know all too well, the great threats posed by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its analogues. During this important global gathering, the United States called on countries to implement innovative options for combating the opioid crisis at the international level.

I played a part in the action going on in Austria, serving on the interagency U.S. delegation to the CND. Part of my role was to lead international negotiations of a U.S. sponsored resolution aimed at mobilizing an international response to the opioid crisis. The resolution would focus international efforts more sharply on the threats presented by the new paradigm in drug trafficking, a paradigm which is fueling tragedy in American communities.

In this new reality, international criminal organizations trafficking in drugs are evading international controls by creating synthetic drugs that are mirror images of legal, controlled substances. Traffickers are also exploiting the online market through open and dark net sites, and then trafficking these substances through the international mail. What’s more, these substances are shipped in small quantities – a couple milligrams, for example – making these packages difficult for law enforcement and regulatory officials to identify and intercept. During negotiations of this resolution, I was successful in securing international acknowledgment of this new paradigm, and commitment from countries, including China, Mexico, and the European Union, to take action to combat these threats.

Another aspect of U.S. action on the international stage to combat our drugs crisis is the effort to increase international control of synthetic opioids. To this end, the United States requested that the CND control carfentanil – a deadly synthetic opioid 10,000 times more potent than morphine that is contributing to the U.S. opioid crisis – under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961 Convention). I worked with the interagency and our U.S. partners overseas to advance robust advocacy with the 53 voting countries of the CND, to push for votes in favor of this request during the March CND meeting.

Member countries vote to increase international control of synthetic opioids.

On the day of the vote, I sat in anxious anticipation as the secretariat called for countries to deliver their votes on this issue. In a matter of minutes, it was clear that the United States was triumphant in this effort, with the CND members voting unanimously in favor of this request. What’s more is that the CND members voted also to control five other dangerous fentanyl analogues. International control of these drugs will require 186 countries – the States Parties to the 1961 Convention – to institute domestic oversight and monitoring regulations on these deadly synthetic opioids, which will hinder transnational criminal organizations’ efforts to access these dangerous drugs.

Going forward, we have a lengthy to-do list. We will prioritize efforts to (1) accelerate the rate at which synthetic opioids are controlled under the international treaties; (2) push countries to increase voluntary cooperation and information sharing on the trafficking and use trends of synthetic opioids, including pushing China, India, and Mexico to increase participation in UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) online databases that facilitate law enforcement cooperation; (3) strengthen capacity of our law enforcement partners to curb the sale of these drugs online, including by participating in an International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) technical meeting to exchange best practices and lessons learned; and (4) work with our regulatory and law enforcement officials to stop illicit shipments carrying these drugs, including by soliciting more information on the existing trends from the Universal Postal Union (UPU).

At the CND, the United States made great strides in our efforts to address the deadly new drugs paradigm. But there is much more to be done, and we will continue working diligently with our international partners to mobilize and implement the international response to the threats posed by synthetic opioids.

About the Author: Teddi Shihadeh Bouffard serves in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.