The illicit drug market continues to become more treacherous. Illicit drugs killed more than 107,000 Americans in the last 12 months, the most on record, and are now the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 45, more than firearms, car accidents, and Covid-19.
The increase in overdose deaths can be attributed to one drug — fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is many times more powerful than heroin. Once found only in hospitals, fentanyl is now ubiquitous. It can be found in every corner of America and in some places has supplanted the supply of other drugs like heroin.
Fentanyl is the latest illicit drug to spread across the U.S., but it won’t be the last. What might the next era of drug trafficking look like?
Some experts have suggested we are already entering a “fourth wave” of the opioid crisis, with fentanyl increasingly being mixed with stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, combinations known as speedballs and goofballs. Others have noted the emergence of nitazenes, a family of novel synthetic opioids that are more powerful than fentanyl. Public health authorities have detected nitazenes in the Southwest, South, Midwest, and some sections of the eastern United States.
And, of course, drug traffickers continue to synthesize new illicit drugs every day, a process likely to accelerate with advances in artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and biotechnology.
It is difficult to predict which illicit substance may become the “next fentanyl,” but one thing is certain: It will be synthetic.
Synthetic drugs are the future of drug trafficking. Plant-based drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana require large swaths of land and favorable climates. Synthetic drugs, in contrast, have comparatively low barriers to entry. They are relatively cheap and easy to make, more potent than traditional drugs, and incredibly lucrative. From a drug trafficker’s perspective, synthetic drugs are a far superior product.
As of the end of 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has documented more than 1,100 new psychoactive substances — synthetic drugs designed to mimic the effects of more common illicit drugs — across more than 134 countries in every region of the world. None of these has yet to capture the same kind of market share as fentanyl, but it is clear that people are searching for the next big thing.
While many people are focused on the next deadly substance, I believe the more significant shift may be how those substances are produced. Today, many of the illicit drugs consumed in the U.S. originate in Mexico, where they are manufactured and trafficked on an industrial scale. However, it’s not hard to imagine a time in the not-so-distant future where most illicit drugs are homemade.
Picture, for example, a world in which consumers create their own illicit drugs at home with recipes developed by AI and created with 3D printers and raw materials purchased online. It would be like having your own freestyle drink dispenser — but for illicit drugs. While a handful of amateur drug chemists are already engaging in some version of this, the continued democratization of information, technology, and commerce will make it possible for more people to engage in do-it-yourself drug-making.
This would have enormous ramifications for the drug trade and public health. In the first place, it’s likely that transnational drug trafficking as we know it would all but disappear, requiring a complete rethink of existing counterdrug policies. It would also be very difficult to police. How do you stop people from repurposing legitimate items to make illicit drugs?
In Mexico, cartels are already experimenting with so-called pre-precursor chemicals to make fentanyl and methamphetamine, chemicals that are widely used to produce many legal substances and so can’t be controlled.
Perhaps the biggest question is what homemade drugs would mean for public health. On one hand, it would seem to promote increased drug use and addiction. On the other hand, it could also lead to a reduction in violent crime, corruption, and other negative ramifications of the drug trade.
What I have described above is just one possible outcome and, in any event, it is unlikely to happen overnight. However, any such change to drug trafficking would represent a paradigm shift in drug control, especially efforts to reduce drug supplies. In a world where virtually anyone, anywhere can manufacture increasingly dangerous substances, educating Americans — especially young Americans — about the dangers of drug use will become even more important.
As illicit drugs become even more accessible than they are now, policymakers must think carefully about how to keep Americans safe and make informed choices about their health.
Jim Crotty is an associate vice president at The Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm in Washington, D.C., and the former deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.