Let’s work together to stop heroin being produced

Let’s work together to stop heroin being produced

If we want to help stop heroin sales to vulnerable people, we must prevent the chemicals used to manufacture this deadly drug from reaching the criminals.  
Grim reports about the impact of heroin on small communities in the United States and the tragic death of Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman have focused attention on this drug that kills around 100,000 people globally every year. 

Heroin reaches the U.S. mostly from Mexico and Colombia with only a small percentage arriving from Afghanistan, the world’s largest supplier of opiates. Based on the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s estimates around 40 tons of Mexican heroin were manufactured in 2009.   

It is also worth remembering heroin is produced, not grown. This highly addictive drug is created in a process that sees the opiates turned into morphine and then heroin. Roughly seven to 10 tons of opiates are needed for every single ton of heroin. But, without the combination of opiates with the chemical acetic anhydride, heroin would not be on the streets, destroying families and wrecking lives.
Around 2 million tons of acetic anhydride are produced globally every year and is used in the textile and wood industries, as well as for aspirin and modified starches. For every ton of heroin, as much as 2.5 tons of acetic anhydride is needed in the manufacturing process.

Based on the UNODC’s estimates, around 640 tons of this chemical are needed for global heroin production. That represents only 0.03 percent of the world’s supply of acetic anhydride, revealing just how small the amount needed for drug production and the difficulty of tracking supply.   

Stopping precursor chemical supplies is not new. The international community is currently engaged in this effort, but there are challenges. We confront a host of front companies acting as distributors that hide numerous other front companies posing as end-users. The supply chains are long, complicated and difficult to break down.  

Between 2007 and 2012, an annual average of about 130 tons of acetic anhydride was seized globally. The largest amounts were seized in West Asia, mainly Afghanistan, Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.  

Going after the precursor chemicals means decisive action before the heroin is produced, not afterwards, when the drug is being trafficked and sold to consumers. But it takes commitment and finances.

Studies in Hungary show it costs more than 1,000 euros a day to observe a site where acetic anhydride is warehoused, a stake-out that could potentially last months. Unlike hard-pressed law enforcement agencies, the criminal networks can wait, knowing such operations cannot last forever.  

Traffickers exploit transit loopholes and have become masterly at mislabeling and mis-declaring the chemical’s movement, smuggling it into the main heroin producing countries. We have to be equally skillful at closing these loopholes and reinforcing our customs controls.

There is no silver bullet and many of the necessary systems are already in place. Export notifications, for instance, where origin, transit and destination countries inform each other of the movement of this chemical exist, but need to be followed through on every occasion. Coordination and information-sharing among different law enforcement agencies needs to be deep and abiding.

The biggest problem, unfortunately, is in implementation. What is needed is great effort from every country to play their role in tracking acetic anhydride. Precursors also need to be moved further up the international order of priorities.

Nothing is more important than the need for every country to treat heroin use as an ongoing health issue, focusing on prevention and treatment. We can aid this approach by preventing the opiates from being combined with acetic anhydride in the first place.

Yury Fedotov is executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.