The US’ annual drug report has warned about the continued growth of synthetic drugs, warning of a glut of chemical precursors, and even pre-precursors, for fentanyl coming from China and India.

The 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) – published annually by the US State Department – provides lawmakers with an assessment of the global trends in drug trafficking and how they relate to the United States.

The report’s warning of a diversified synthetic drug market comes against the backdrop of over 100,000 overdose deaths in the US from April 2020 to April 2021, mostly from fentanyl. This record-breaking figure sparked broad concern that efforts in the US, Mexico, and worldwide are not enough to stem the flow and demand for synthetic drugs.

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“Unlike drugs derived from crops, synthetic drugs are not dependent on climate and do not require large tracts of land outside the reach of state authorities,” the report explained to show why these opioids are cheaper and easier to produce than cocaine, marijuana and heroin.

“A mere kilogram of fentanyl purchased online from black market vendors can be pressed into one million counterfeit pills and sold illegally for millions of dollars in the United States,” it continued.

Below, InSight Crime looks at three critical takeaways from the report:

Analogues, Designer Drugs and New Psychoactives

The variety of chemical compositions for synthetic drugs is staggering. At the time of the report’s publication, over 1,000 new psychoactive substances (NPS) had been identified by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) while potential fentanyl analogs likely “number in the thousands.”

An NPS is a synthetic drug often designed to mimic the effects of more traditional narcotics like marijuana or cocaine. NPS production uses substances that are not yet controlled by the UN Drug Conventions of 1961 or 1971, hence the nicknames “legal highs” or “research chemicals.”

The report painted a bleak picture of efforts to halt NPS proliferation. Globally, traffickers are introducing NPS variations at an alarming rate, “averaging over 80 new substances per year since 2010.”

Tailoring the product’s chemical composition to fit consumer demand, dealers are increasingly diving into stimulants and cannabis-mimicking NPSs, according to recent data from the UNODC.

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Diversity of Precursor Chemicals

Producing illicit synthetic drugs requires criminal organizations to get their hands on many chemical precursors.

The global anti-narcotics community, especially China, has added tighter restrictions on the trade of more and more chemicals, but appears to be playing a constant game of catch-up as traffickers “adjust production methods, including the use of alternative chemicals more widely available for commercial purposes and not controlled under the UN system,” the report said.

Traditionally, traffickers relied on precursors such as 4-anilino-N-phenethylpiperidine (ANPP) and N-phenethyl-4-piperidone (NPP) to create fentanyl. The report, however, highlighted a shift to “pre-precursors” and “designer” precursors as authorities crack down on precursors.

Pre-precursor chemicals like benzylfentanyl can be subjected to simple reactions to produce norfentanyl, which is then processed into the coveted fentanyl. In essence, moving one step lower on the production chain keeps traffickers a step ahead of law enforcement. The US has restricted the use of these too, but such regulations are easily avoided.

The vast majority of these precursors have historically been diverted from China, especially since the country banned the sale of fentanyl itself in 2019. The fentanyl is increasingly produced in Mexico, often by large criminal organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) with chemicals shipped from Chinese factories. However, as it has become a mainstay criminal economy, the production and trafficking of fentanyl have drawn the attention of smaller groups as well.

And as China increased its own enforcement against diversion, traffickers have increasingly looked to India to pick up the slack. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), India’s woeful regulation of fentanyl and its precursors present a major opportunity to criminal groups.

Innovations in Methamphetamine

While fentanyl has soared in recent years, the report detailed a similar substitution of “traditional precursors” to pre-precursors for a more traditional drug, methamphetamine. The US has not yet managed to clamp down on this either.

Whereas ephedrine and pseudoephedrine used to be the substances of choice for methamphetamine production, pre-precursors like benzaldehyde and nitroethane are now commonly used, especially in Mexico, to make phenyl-2 propanone (P-2-P), the popular building block for methamphetamine.

Such remodeling has allowed Mexican traffickers to preserve a rising flow of illegal meth into the US.

Specifically, at the southern border, methamphetamine saw record-breaking tonnage in seizures each year from 2017 to 2021, according to data from the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).