The United States saw a record number of drug overdose deaths last year, in part from two powerful synthetic drugs mass-produced in Mexico and then smuggled across the border.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 93,331 drug overdose deaths in 2020, according to preliminary data published by the public health agency. The devastating tally marked an increase of almost 30% 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-related deaths in 2018, they continued their upward trajectory in 2019, then increased in 2020. Opioids again accounted for the overwhelming majority (75%) of deaths last year, followed synthetic opioids (62%) – mostly illegally. manufactured fentanyl – and stimulants like methamphetamine (26 percent).
SEE ALSO: Fentanyl seizures explode in the United States
Seizures by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of drugs causing the overdose crisis are also on the rise. In fiscal 2020, which runs from October to September, CBP seized 4,776 pounds of fentanyl, 70% more than the previous year. This fiscal year, officials have already confiscated double that amount.
Methamphetamine seizures, meanwhile, doubled between 2018 and 2020, according to CBP data. The availability and use of the drug has exploded across the United States in recent years, making the country the methamphetamine use capital of the world.
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With the COVID-19 pandemic and its side effects – such as economic instability and social isolation – exacerbating already high levels of drug use in the United States, organized crime groups in Mexico have stepped up production of synthetic drugs to meet growing and changing demand from the United States.
“Based on our research, drug production in Mexico has not really been affected in the long term by COVID-19 as many initially believed, ”said Cecilia Farfán Méndez, organized crime expert and head of security research programs at the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
Seizure figures indicate production of synthetic drugs grew up in Mexico during the pandemic. More than a ton of fentanyl was seized in the country last year – nearly 500% more than in 2019. And drug trafficking groups are using “clandestine laboratories and more sophisticated treatment methods” to production, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Mexican criminal groups have also increased the methamphetamine trafficking to the point that they have become the “major producers and suppliers” of methamphetamine which is widely available in the United States, according to the DEA. The potency and purity of the drug is also high, hovering around 97%.
Methamphetamine manufacturing takes off in Mexico after US government tight on the sale of precursor chemicals needed to make the drug, including pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, which are used in over-the-counter cold medicines. This has effectively posed a retail problem for Mexican criminal groups who have since built sophisticated networks to ship tons of drugs across the wholesale border, according to Sanho Tree, a drug policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies ( IPS).
And as fentanyl has increasingly replaced heroin as the dominant opioid in the U.S. drug market, Mexican criminal groups have adapted by increasing the production of the lethal synthetic opioid.
SEE ALSO: How fentanyl, more than heroin, is driving the US opioid market
“What we are seeing today in Mexico is the logical evolution of the drug market, where criminal actors do what is in their own best interests,” Tree told InSight Crime.
This increase in production to meet changing drug demand in the United States is also having an effect on drug use in Mexico, which is on the rise, Farfán-Méndez said. “It’s not at the levels we’re seeing in the United States, but more people are using drugs today than in the past,” she said.
Domestic drug use has spread beyond more commonly used drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Although fentanyl use in Mexico has not yet spread and has caused panic in the United States, Mexico’s civil society-led youth integration centers (Centros de Integración Juvenil – CIJ) reported that methamphetamine was on track to be the most consumed drug by users seeking care in their facilities nationwide in 2020, overtaking alcohol, cocaine and marijuana.
To curb the current epidemic in the United States and prevent a possible drug overdose crisis in Mexico, experts have stressed the need move away from punitive approaches to combating drug abuse and view the problem as a public health problem.
“We cannot continue to chase drug production around the planet,” Tree said.
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