The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How fentanyl could alter global drug policy

A jug of used needles to exchange for new ones is seen in an industrial area of Camden, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP)

Policymakers and the public are acutely aware that the powerful opioid fentanyl has significantly worsened the country’s opioid epidemic, accounting for almost 20,000 deaths in 2016. But few people appreciate fentanyl’s potential to permanently alter illegal drug markets and international relations along with them.

Heroin, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and virtually every other opioid traded on the black market depend on a plant -- the opium poppy -- for their raw material. Fentanyl in contrast is an opioid analogue that can be created from chemicals in a laboratory. As Vanda Felbab-Brown, Jonathan Caulkins and I describe in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, separating illicit opioid production from agriculture is a disruptive innovation for black markets.

Opium poppy-sourced drugs depend on control of arable land in countries where law enforcement is a minimal or at least corruptible presence. Plant-based opium production also requires a substantial number of agricultural workers who plant and tend opium poppies, remove raw opium from seed pods at harvest time and then package and store raw opium, some of which will be processed by other workers into drugs such as heroin.

This poppy-centered opium production system empowers warlords in Afghanistan and cartel leaders in Mexico because they control the right land. But fentanyl production requires no land at all. A small gang with a single talented chemist can thus economically undercut poppy-based opioid production. Even if old-line agriculturally based producers shift some of their opioid business to fentanyl, as have a few Mexican cartels, they find themselves in a weaker position because they no longer gain the political capital they once did from providing plentiful drug-production jobs to local residents.

Transnational criminal organizations with smuggling expertise are also being financially squeezed by fentanyl. Currently, these organizations are essential middlemen moving bulk opium and heroin shipments by truck, boat and plane from producing countries to consumer markets hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Fentanyl, being enormously more potent per gram, is so compact that people with no particular smuggling expertise can ship it overseas in a regular-size piece of mail with little chance of it being detected. Fentanyl producers can also simply set up small labs within consuming countries and thus avoid the smuggling altogether.

Presuming that plant-based drugs continue to become less important in the future, it will affect relationships between drug-consuming nations such as the United States and drug-producing nations such as Afghanistan. Currently, efforts to eradicate drug crops produce understandable resentment among poppy farmers, in some cases driving them into working with groups such as the Taliban out of anger, financial desperation or both. If synthetic drugs become dominant, the United States and other consuming nations will no longer be concerned about developing-world drug crops, removing a burr from under the saddle of international relationships and potentially weakening insurgencies abroad at the same time.

The impact of synthetic opioids has yet to be fully unraveled, but it clearly will go beyond public health to the basic nature of drug trafficking itself.

To participate in a discussion about the future of opioids, please consider attending a program at the Brookings Institution on Thursday featuring Felbab-Brown, myself, Washington Post reporter Lenny Bernstein and Pagan Harleman, showrunner for a new Showtime documentary series on the opioid crisis.