The Dark Side of the Supply Chain

CSPS Fellow Faith Hawkins discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal and, especially, illegal sale of fentanyl in the US.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the fragility of global supply chains. Medicine, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other crucial resources are in short supply, yet the pandemic has also had an unexpected effect on the supply chain for a more dubious product: fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine that is prescribed to treat severe pain and has been the cause of thousands of overdoses and drug-related deaths. The disruption of fentanyl’s supply chain is likely to lead to a rise in drug prices or a shift in the use fentanyl during the pandemic. Policymakers will need to prepare for these possibilities and anticipate how they may affect current drug policy after the crisis is over.

China has long been recognized as one of the primary sources of illicit fentanyl. The majority of illicit fentanyl and its precursor chemicals are shipped from China to Mexico in bulk cargo. Mexican cartels, like the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, then funnel fentanyl into the United States. As China adopted isolation tactics to counter  the spread of COVID-19, the production of drugs and drug manufacturing chemicals has been significantly reduced, if not halted in the country.  The standstill in trade has halted the air and sea transportation of drugs, as well. The pandemic has also raised border crossing standards in the United States, making it harder for those who have been ferrying drugs from Mexico to do so.

The reverberations of the sudden decline in fentanyl are worrying. Firstly, those who suffer from substance abuse will not simply break their habits. The lack of fentanyl is likely to increase the risks users are willing to take to obtain the drug. Additionally, as the supply of fentanyl falls off, we can expect that dealers will raise their prices to compensate. Darknet dealers are already warning customers of potential price increases as their sales begin to drop.  

Secondly, substance abusers are also likely to turn to other drugs to get their fix. Authorities need to identify what other illicit drugs remain unaffected by the COVID-19 supply chain disruptions, are still readily available, and where they originate. It is possible the epicenter for illicit drugs may shift away from China as the pandemic wears on and countries continue to adopt isolationist tactics. The prevalence of fentanyl use by meth and heroin users makes them the most likely substances for substance abusers to turn to under current conditions.

The DEA has already relaxed production limits on controlled substances, including fentanyl, to address medicine shortages for the duration of the emergency. Criminals are likely to exploit this policy modification to bolster their own supplies by targeting larger stockpiles and diverting larger quantities of these substances to the black market. Both policymakers and the relevant enforcement agencies must be prepared for this possibility and the impact it may have after the pandemic winds down. Law enforcement agencies will need to anticipate new routes and methods of smuggling as border security remains heightened.

Further, the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, originally written to provide resources for the prevention of opioid use and the treatment of substance abusers, will need to be amended to account for the increased use of meth and heroin. The legislation addresses short-term investment in prevention, treatment, and recovery programs for addiction services, but The Tdoes not promise long-term funding. Without a commitment to sustaining the program, it may not receive adequate resources or endure long enough to be as useful as it could be. Furthermore, the SUPPORT Act needs to change opioid data monitoring so that it addresses the use of illicit substances in conjunction with opioid use instead of primarily on prescribed substances.  

The coronavirus pandemic is clashing with the opioid epidemic, and though COVID-19 requires our utmost attention, we should not lose sight of the damage fentanyl has and will continue to cause.  The narcotics trade relies on the constant movements of its products and while the pandemic endures drug traders will adapt to their new limitations.  Policymakers will have to adapt alongside them or risk losing what little ground they have managed to gain.

Faith Hawkins is a first-year graduate student in International Security at the Schar School. She received a Bachelor’s in Government and International Politics from George Mason. Her research interests lie at the intersection between international security, human rights, and multilateral institutions.

Photo can be found here.