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Synthetic opioids – practical solutions to a persisting crisis

Organized by the Universal Postal Union with the support of the UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section

Asma Fakhri (UNODC). ‘The synthetic opioid problem not only persists, but as a result of physical distancing measures it has extended its reach to new regions. The number of preventable deaths has escalated, and international cooperation is key in responses to these challenges. Promoting this collaboration is at he heart of what we try to do with the UNODC Opioid Strategy. We try to create synergies between experts, including with the Universal Postal Union. Today’s side event will showcase these synergies’.

Brandon Callahan (US Postal Inspection Service). ‘The use and abuse of synthetic opioids has taken a substantial toll worldwide. COVID19 has exacerbated the epidemic for multiple reasons. The postal inspection services continue to increase seizures and interventions. Syntehtic opioid seizures by USPIS increased by 23% in FY2020, compared to FY2019. It’s imperative that law enforcement continues to monitor and share market trends. At the beginning of the pandemic we detected a clear decrease in the shipping of drugs, in good part due to lack of people working in postal offices, and also closure of borders. However, drug traffickers adapted quickly. Thus the important increase in FY2020. Substances intercepted range from small gram-size envelopes to multikilogram parcels.

The priority is to aggressively investigate and dismantle large-scale drug trafficking organisations. We also need to develop intelligence from seizures and training regarding  mail. We need to focus on international cooperation. The UNODC toolkit on synthetic drugs is a valuable tool in this regard. Cooperation with INCB is critical’.

Dawn Wilkes (Universal Postal Union). ‘UPU is the third oldest intergovernmental organisation in the world. It is a specialised agency of the United Nations since 1948, and is headquartered in Bern, Switzerland.

The network of postal operator includes over 5 million people across the world, and that is without taking into consideration people working in outsourced services. The UPU works with many external stakeholders. Postal operators deal with over 320 billion parcels every year. Retail e-commerce sales have boomed in the latest years, multiplying by 3 in 6 years.

There is an increasing volume of dangerous substances trafficked via postal, express mail, and courier streams. This presenter displays this video.

The global postal model aims to ensure that postal operators understand global requirements, and have a strong grasp of how to comply with such requirements.

The UPU contains many compendia, and one of them is the CDS Prohibitions Compendium. Within the customs declaration system, which was created to exchange data between customs operators, there are many ways to capture and keep track of ‘items of interest’. A security alert can be put in place through automated rules that identify dangerous parcels.

The UPU has continued to train and expand capacity. There have been significant advances over the past year alone – we continue to support designated operators. We also continue our cooperation with INCB, which began in 2018, and has been very fruitful. We have trained more than 300 postal operators. Continued progress is needed, though, particularly in using AI to identify suspect parcels’.

Martin Raithelhuber (UNODC). ‘The UNODC has created an Early Warning Advisory system on NPS under the Global SMART programme. When you look at our early morning messages, you will see that it frquently includes new products . Just last year, we launched 11 new opioid early warning messages, based on our own data or on research carried out by others.

Not all authorities that could put in place Early Warning systems does it already. So an important component of our work is to support new systems.

We also want to disseminate new information better. We’re launching soon a new early warning interactive system. It is also necessary to provide a scientific context to understand what data means. This is what we do with our Global Smart Update, which comes up twice a year. Our work goes beyond fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, as many different synthetic opioids are emerging – the chemical complexity is astounding. We’re seeing a broader and broader range of opioids unrelated to fentanyl’.

Neil Walsh (UNODC). ‘We’re trying to carry out a better analysis of darknet markets, and of how they work, so that we can provide better advice to law enforcement. We are also doing work on threat assessment. The focus is to understand better what we do, to see how we can prioritise our efforts.

One of the highlights of our work is to try to identify synthetic opioids on darket markets before they arrive to the markets, in order to better identify product and transit routes, etc.

Recently we became aware of a darknet market that was advertising covid vaccines. But we didn’t know if the actual product was real or not – that’s a typical feature of a darknet market. In this case, we doubted that the actor who posted the advertisement was able to deviate and sell vaccines at scale. But we don’t know for sure. And that’s why we need to understand what is behind the markets’.

Bob Van den Berghe (UNODC).  ‘UNODC has created the Container Control Programme (CCP), which is a global inter-agency programme, with activities in 70 participating countries. We support around 120 container control units, working in harbours, airports, etc. We focus only on cargo, not on people.

We delivered training supported through the UNODC Opioid strategy. There’s already been some impressive results in 2020. We have completed 800 seizures, including ofsynthetic opioids and precursors. The epidemic of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, MDMA, etc., is one of the biggest challenges we have been facing. Our CCP has reacted to the COVID19 crisis in a considered and systematic way. However, it is clear that the demand of products has continued’.

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