Side Event: Non-scheduled and designer precursor chemicals – global challenges and global solutions

Organized by the European Union with the support of the United States of America, and the International Narcotics Control Board

Cornelis de Joncheere (INCB). ‘Last November, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the 1988 convention, INCB held a consultation with member states on article 12 of such convention, which concerns precursors. There was an agreement that there is a challenge on designer and non-scheduled precursors. International scheduling is the gold standard for dealing with substances, but it has limitation. Over the past year, the board has drawn attention to these issues, as you can see in this slide.

 

The board has also provided capacity building to national authorities to identify the ever-growing number of non-controlled precursors. These include the ISSL, and the Precursors Chemical Monographers. Lastly, the INCB Annual Report 2020 discusses the latest trends and developments in licit traffic in precursors.

The continuing proliferation of designer precursors is seen across all drug classes and is a critical challenge to the international drug control system. It is not an issue that affects only some countries, but impacts across the board. An international consensus with instruments and collaboration agreements is needed. Time is of essence, and it is imperative that action is taken’.

Anne Kemppainen (EEAS). ‘It is a great pleasure for the EU to organise this important side event in cooperation with INCB and US. This is amongst the top priorities of the new EU Drugs Strategy 2021-2025. During the last three decades, the context in which this issue is debated has changed dramatically. The pharmaceutic industry has become global. Great advances in chemistry have been made. The Internet makes access much easier. Global trade has multiplied by four.

The emergence of designer precursors that are closely related to scheduled precursors, and that were developed just for the purpose of illegal drug activities, is one of these developments. Designer precursors were not taken into consideration when designing the drug conventions, and they are still not appropriately addressed by EU legislation and policies.

Because of the complexity of the matter, the EU recently set up an ad-hoc expert working group, including experts from pharmaceutical industries, national authorities, etc. We expect some recommendations by the end of year.

Of course, designer precursors are a global phenomenon with global scope, and we fully support the work of the INCB in that regard. With today´s side event we would very much like to stimulate this discussion, following last year´s INCB Conference Room Paper’.

Jeremy Douglas (UNODC). What we have witnessed over recent years is a massive surge of methamphetamine, which has hit South East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Seizures have risen to over 160 tons of methamphetamine, with 2/3 seized in the lower Mekong region.  It’s a very resilient business, which has not budged due to COVID19.

Most of the methamphetamine in the region is made with ephedrine, but interception rates of ephedrine is very low. This means that seizures are a very low percentage of the total production. Several non-controlled chemicals for the production of ephedrine and P2P are recently identified. Which means that there is production of precursors at the same time as there is production of methamphetamine. This means that organised crime groups are very innovative, and they are responding to the tightening of controls over scheduled precursors. There is a symbiotic relationship between the production of synthetic drugs and the production of design precursors’.

Luc de Meyer (EU). ‘At the end of 2020, the European Commission finalised a comprehensive evaluation of its precursor policy. It concluded that additional action on non-designed precursors is needed.

The traditional approach to drug precursors is based on the notion that substances have a legitimate use, and that “the honest must be controlled in order to discover the dishonest”. On the other hand, designer precursors usually have no normal legitimate use, so they cannot be monitored in the same way. Furthermore, originally designer precursors are not scheduled.

It is important to note that we always talk about ‘no known legitimate use’, as there might be legitimate use that we don’t know.

Designer precursors are frequently traded under cover, with fake labels, encrypted messaging, etc. Which means that their producers know they are committing an illegal activity. [Intervention cut here do to connectivity problems].

In the traditional drug realms, offences like trafficking etc. are already envisaged by criminal legislation, and entail very severe criminal penalties. Manufacturers of designer precursors will claim that they did not know that their chemicals were used for illegal purposes, and because the substance is not scheduled prosecutors will have a hard time proving that.

By the end of the year, we hope to complete an EU document that can address the challenges in this matter,

Martijn Mulder (Netherlands). ‘The Dutch government has recently submitted a bill to parliament on non-scheduled precursors, which aims to prohibit the possession or transportation of specific types of non-scheduled substances intended as precursors for hard drugs without legitimate use. A ban on these substances is seen as a necessarily step in the fight against narcotic and psychotropic substances.

A speedy and expedient procedure is needed in order to prevent and stop trafficking in precursors. Under Dutch law, facilitating the production of drugs is a criminal offence, but it is hard to achieve a conviction, as it can be complicated to prove that the accused persons know that the substance is a precursor.

The Dutch govt. feels a special responsibility in this matter, as NL is a major producer of synthetic drugs. The criteria for banning substances include (1) the substance can be used as a precursor and there are clear indications that it is used that way, (2) the substance has no legal use, and (3) the substance is not scheduled. A board integrating law enforcement, public health, and pharmaceutical experts will meet periodically to decide on scheduling or descheduling of new substances.

At first, a generic approach to schedule all substances but those under a ‘white list’ seemed reasonable, and it is still possible under the law. But it is not the approach taken by the development of the law as currently envisaged.

If adopted, the Dutch law will be effective in 2022. As international trade is essential in these matters, the NL looks forward to EU action on this topic.

Wu Tingfang (China). ‘We currently face a paradox – how can we control uncontrolled substances? In China we are doing this through different steps:

1/ We can start by improving legislation, or the interpretation of legislation. Scheduling new substances expediently can be effective at reducing production.

2/ We need to strengthen administration of pharmaceutical regulations.

3/ Raising public awareness. Conducting survey across pharmaceutical industries, for instance.

4/ A special control policy regarding Afghanistan, Lao PDR, and Myanmar has been put in place.

5/ International cooperation is also central. A solid basis for China and EU cooperation was established in 2009, and a follow-up group was created, which meets every 1 to 2 years. We work under the principle ‘never blame but cooperate’. We always share information on non-scheduled substances on time. We also have cooperation with the US.

Chemicals are ever changing and never ending. Therefore, it is also important to adopt demand reduction interventions, as it might be more useful and less costly.

John Farmer (USA). ‘The unprecedented use of non-scheduled and designer precursor have made it more difficult for the international community to implement drug control. Little can be done to stop shipments of these chemicals.

USA has sought to increase its engagement with industry. We have actively engaged with industry in several projects. We don’t characterise this engagement as partnerships, but as educational initiatives. We try to educate online retailers on the sale of precursors that could be used for production of drugs. Notably, Amazon Inc. was the first to ban the sale of machines that can be employed in that manner.

Secondly, USA has engaged with the shipping industry. As the overwhelming number of chemicals are shipped through the seas, this could be significant liability for shipping companies. The response of the industry so far has been very positive. The third outreach we have done is with exporters of solvents, in order to educate them on the risks of their activities.

By interacting with the industry we can make progress. Chemical industries can broaden their awareness of their unique manufacturing characteristics of their productors. Digital companies can raise their awareness of the sale of fentanyl through digital platforms, including via social media. Making industry aware of new trends will make them able to help us in the fighting of illicit drugs.

The overwhelming question is what the international community will do. We know that we have to do it together. We are not starting from square one. The INCB Conference Room Paper provides a great road map on how to counter precursors within the 1988 convention. Article 12 should be read to include designer precursors, even if they are not explicitly mentioned. A possible way forward could be to initiate a drafting team of countries that can design measures that states can take to address these issues. We need to act now, as a united international community, to come up with a response. We stand ready to assist’.

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