The United States saw a record toll in drug overdose deaths last year, driven in part by two powerful synthetic drugs mass-produced in Mexico and then smuggled over the border.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 93,331 drug overdose deaths in 2020, according to preliminary data released by the public health agency. The devastating tally marked a nearly 30 percent increase from the 72,151 deaths recorded in 2019.
Drug overdose deaths in the United States have been rising steadily for decades, propelled by a massive increase in opioid use.
After a brief drop in drug deaths in 2018, they continued an upward trajectory in 2019 and then surged in 2020. Opioids again accounted for the overwhelming majority (75 percent) of deaths last year, followed by synthetic opioids (62 percent) - primarily illegally manufactured fentanyl - and stimulants like methamphetamine (26 percent).
Seizures by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of the drugs driving the overdose crisis are also up. During the 2020 fiscal year, which runs from October to September, CBP seized 4,776 pounds of fentanyl, 70 percent more than they did the year before. This fiscal year, officials have already confiscated twice that amount.
Methamphetamine seizures, meanwhile, doubled between 2018 and 2020, according to CBP’s data. Both availability and use of the drug have exploded across the United States in recent years, effectively making the country the methamphetamine consumption capital of the world.
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With the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary effects - like economic instability and social isolation - exacerbating already high levels of drug use in the United States, organized crime groups in Mexico have scaled up synthetic drug production to meet growing and shifting US demand.
“Based on our research, drug production in Mexico wasn’t really effected long-term by COVID-19 in the way that many initially thought it would be,” said Cecilia Farfán Méndez, an expert on organized crime and the head of Security Research Programs at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
Seizure figures indicate synthetic drug production has grown in Mexico during the pandemic. More than a ton of fentanyl was seized in the country last year - almost 500 percent more than in 2019. And drug trafficking groups are using “more sophisticated clandestine laboratories and processing methods” for production, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Mexican crime groups have also increased the trafficking of methamphetamine to the point that they’ve become the “primary producers and suppliers” of the methamphetamine that is widely available in the United States, according to the DEA. The drug’s potency and purity are also high, hovering around 97 percent.
The manufacturing of methamphetamine took off in Mexico after the US government clamped down on the sale of precursor chemicals needed to make the drug, including pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, which are used in over-the-counter cold medications. This effectively handed a retail problem to Mexican crime groups that have since built sophisticated networks to ship tons of the drug across the border in wholesale amounts, according to Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).
“What we’re witnessing today in Mexico is the logical evolution of the drug market, where criminal actors are doing what’s in their own self-interest,” Tree told InSight Crime.
This increased production to meet shifting US drug demand is also having an effect on drug consumption in Mexico, which is on the rise, said Farfán-Méndez. “It’s not at the levels we see in the United States, but more people are using drugs today than in years past," she said.
Domestic drug use has expanded beyond more commonly consumed drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Though fentanyl use in Mexico has not yet spread and provoked the panic that it has in the United States, Mexico's civil society-led Youth Integration Centers (Centros de Integración Juvenil - CIJ) reported that methamphetamine was on pace to be the drug most abused by users seeking care in their facilities nationwide in 2020, surpassing alcohol, cocaine and marijuana.
To curb the present epidemic in the United States and prevent a potential drug overdose crisis in Mexico, experts have emphasized the need to move away from punitive approaches to addressing drug abuse and towards viewing the issue as a public health concern.
“We can’t continue to chase drug production around the planet,” Tree said.