Virtual Ministerial Meeting to Launch the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drugs

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  Colleagues, on behalf of President Biden, welcome.  Welcome to the launch of the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats.  We are grateful to the senior government officials from more than 80 countries, as well as leaders from over a dozen regional and international organizations for joining us (inaudible).

We feel this acutely in the United States.  Synthetic drugs are the number one killer of Americans aged 18 to 49.  And it’s almost worth pausing on that fact.  The number one killer of Americans aged 18 to 49 – synthetic drugs, notably fentanyl.  Nearly 110,000 Americans died last year of a drug overdose.  Two-thirds of those deaths involved synthetic opioids.  For the individuals, the families, the communities affected, the pain caused by these deaths and by the millions who suffer with substance use is immeasurable.  It’s also inflicting a massive economic toll – nearly $1.5 trillion in the United States in 2020 alone, according to a report by our Congress; our public health system, our criminal justice system all bearing the costs.

That’s why President Biden has made it a top priority for us to tackle two of the critical drivers of this epidemic in the United States: untreated addiction, and drug trafficking.  In 2022 our administration released a National Drug Control Strategy that for the first time the United States embraces harm reduction efforts that meet people where they are and engages them in care and services.  America is far from alone in facing this challenge.  According to the United Nations, more than 34 million people around the world use methamphetamines or other synthetic stimulants annually.  And every region is experiencing an alarming rise in other synthetic drugs.  In Africa, it’s tramadol; in the Middle East, fake Captagon pills; in Asia, Ketamine.

One of the main reasons we wanted to come together today is because we believe the United States is a canary in the coal mine when it comes to fentanyl, an exceptionally addictive and deadly synthetic drug.  Having saturated the United States market, transnational criminal enterprises are turning elsewhere to expand their profits.  If we don’t act together with fierce urgency, more communities around the world will bear the catastrophic costs that are already affecting so many American cities, so many American towns.

The criminal organizations that traffic synthetic drugs are extremely adept at exploiting weak links in our interconnected global system.  When one government aggressively restricts the precursor chemical, traffickers simply buy it elsewhere.  When one country closes off a transit route, traffickers quickly shift to another.  This is the definition of a problem that no country can solve alone.  That’s why we’re creating this global coalition.

We’re focused on three key areas: first, preventing the illicit manufacture and trafficking of synthetic drugs; second, detecting emerging threats and patterns of use; and third, advancing public health interventions and services to prevent and reduce drug use, to save lives, to support recovery for people who use drugs.

Now, of course, we’re not starting from scratch.  For years, governments, regional and international organizations, health workers, and communities have been coming up with innovative solutions on each of these priorities.  Countries in the Western Hemisphere are working with the Organization of American States to develop and implement early warning systems to detect emerging synthetic drug use.

Take-home naloxone kits, pioneered by countries in Europe, have been adopted by countries in Central Asia and other regions.  The International Narcotics Control Board is promoting intelligence sharing on the trafficking of precursors to help governments cooperate on interdictions and on prosecutions.  This coalition – this coalition is intended to build on these and other important efforts, not take their place, including efforts in the United States, which are among those shared lessons learned.

I’ll give just one example.  In April, we hosted the first ever City Summit of the Americas in Denver, Colorado.  We brought together more than 250 mayors from across our hemisphere, along with governors, tribal and indigenous officials, leaders from civil society and the private sector.  One of the sessions that I attended focused on local efforts to combat the fentanyl epidemic.  The city of Denver’s crime lab shared how it tracks the emergence of new synthetic drugs and overdoses.  Mayors from Canada, from Ecuador, and Mexico spoke to their strategies to tackle the rise in synthetic drug use.  This is precisely the kind of collaboration that we’ll foster through this global coalition, while championing other voluntary best practices like improved information sharing between governments and the private sector, better labeling and “Know Your Customer” protocols to help prevent the diversion of precursors into illicit use.

Today, in addition to this ministerial meeting, we’ll convene three expert panels.  The panel discussions will help define the goals of distinct working groups – one for each of the coalition’s major lines of effort – which will carry our collaborative efforts forward over the coming months.

Then in September, we plan to host an in-person meeting of this coalition on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Week, where the working groups will report on their progress and help us chart a way forward.

At every step, our focus will be on developing practical policies, diminishing the public health and public security threats posed by synthetic drugs, improving the lives of our people (inaudible) It’s not enough to work with governments and international organizations.  We need to partner with the private sector, including chemical manufacturers, shipping companies, social media platforms because this illicit trade is built on the pillars of legitimate global commerce.

Most synthetic drugs are produced from chemicals that are used legally in making pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, household products.  Traffickers advertise synthetic drugs on social media, they use online apps to communicate with prospective buyers and collect payments.

We also need to partner with hospitals and clinics, emergency departments, mental health professionals, and other public health stakeholders who are saving lives every single day while providing treatment and recovery support efforts.  And we need civil society at the table, including the community-based organizations that are on the front lines of this effort.

I mentioned a few minutes ago my meeting with city officials from the Americas who are developing these innovative responses to threats from synthetic drugs.  One of them who really stayed with me was Shawna Darling.  She’s a public health official from Denver.  She and her team drive a bright purple van that I got a chance to see, a clinic on wheels among the city’s underdeveloped neighborhoods, bringing services directly to vulnerable communities.  They distribute fentanyl test strips and naloxone.  They connect individuals with treatment and recovery programs.  They share information about dangerous new synthetic drugs.

Shawna explained to me that one of the reasons she’s been able to build trust with many of these vulnerable people is because she walked in their shoes.  She herself struggled with addiction for 13 years.  She spent time in and out of jail.  And she told me, and I quote, “I’ve learned what it feels like to be defeated and desperate, but I was able to get support and care that I needed, and now I’m able to offer that to others.”

When we talk about the hundreds of thousands of lives this epidemic takes every year, and the millions of families it’s ravaging, it’s easy to lose sight of the human beings behind the numbers.  So let’s remember that while this coalition is about protecting our citizens’ security, their health, their prosperity, it’s also about saving people’s lives, saving their futures – people who could be our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones; individuals who, like Shawna, have so much to contribute to their communities.

I can’t think of a more important or urgent undertaking for us, and I can’t thank you enough for joining this session, joining this coalition, and for the work that we’ll do together.  Thanks, everyone.

Also see the Ministerial Declaration on Accelerating and Strengthening the Global Response to Synthetic Drugs.