The rise of Fentanyl in the US and EU darknet marketplaces
Fentanyl is a “Schedule I” drug and one of the widely used synthetic opioids in medicine. In the United States, illegally produced fentanyl, as well as its analogues, New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), which are newly available drugs whose chemical structure is being modified to skirt around law enforcement agents (LEAs). They are used by traffickers to adulterate namely heroin, and other illegal drugs such as cocaine, contributing to the currently prominent “opioid epidemic”. Fentanyl is mainly purchased over darknet marketplaces from vendors located in China, exploiting the discrepancies among laws between China and the US, and shipped via postal mail or private courier. Detection by customs officials is considerably difficult due to the increased traffic volume in the mail system secondarily to the growing volume of ecommerce at a global level. Traffickers are exploiting the mail system vulnerabilities in detection.
Traditional organized crime, mostly Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO) and other actors, which are marked by US LEAs as “non-cartel affiliated individuals”, are involved in fentanyl and fentanyl analogues trafficking. In Europe, traffickers are resorting to fentanyl to replace heroin mainly through clandestine production and illegal diversion from legitimate supply chains. Recent studies have shown that fentanyl is being sold through darknet marketplaces in Europe, originating from vendors located in Europe. However, in Europe, the identity of these darknet marketplace vendors and their possible connection to organized criminal groups are still unclear.
A recently published paper examined fentanyl criminal marketplaces in the United States and in Europe to delineate future scenarios.
Why Fentanyl seems to be replacing heroin as an opioid of choice among drug users?
There is evidence to argue that fentanyl and fentanyl analogues can be the synthetic opioids of choice; that in future scenarios may progressively substitute plant based heroin in the US drug criminal market. Following this pattern, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues have the potential of playing a similar role in the European Union drug criminal markets considering the following:
1. Versatility of the product:
Clandestine chemists dealing with NPS may be able to recur to patented and newly formulated chemical structures of fentanyl analogues to trick the law following a dynamic and resilient trend that can create new synthetic products to fit the demand of potent, deadly substances for increasingly tolerant opioid abusers.
2. The prominent role of “non-cartel affiliated individuals”
As it is demonstrated in the US, the relative ease to enter the fentanyl distribution business has paved the way to “new criminal actors” operating mainly via online darknet marketplaces, and in a different track to traditional criminal organizations doing physical retail sales (like Mexican DTOs in the US). Relying on online purchasing, home mail delivery and, the synthetic nature of fentanyl and its analogues, drug users in the US are already cutting supply costs and profit from the current demand for opioids fueling the current global “opioid epidemic”. Considering the global dimension of online purchasing, this business model pattern could be adopted potentially anywhere in the world, as long as there is an internet connection, a postal service, and a demand for drugs. These “new actors” could step in the fentanyl business in some countries of the European Union as well, where the darknet marketplace model is most developed both in terms of supply and demand.
3. Inexpensive price and low dosage range:
These new non-affiliated individuals, in addition to traditional criminal organizations, are investing in the fentanyl business opportunity profiting from its low dosage range, high potency as compared to heroin, and the inexpensive price. When the US market is considered, there are already early indications that Mexican poppy farmers are increasingly failing to compete with the low price of fentanyl and its analogues shipped from China.
This has the potential to transform the whole illegal US opioid market which could be increasingly supplied with fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, profiting from discrepancies in controls and regulations. These initial signs of a potential replacement of Mexican heroin by fentanyl in the US ought to be of particular interest for Europe. As such, it is still unclear whether the emergence of fentanyl in European markets will eventually have the effect to create a new source of opium supply separate from its current main source, which is inarguably Afghanistan’s poppy agriculture for heroin production.
4. High potency, overdose risk as factors appealing for drug users:
Drug users who have developed tolerance to high potency opioids are seeking even more potent drugs. As it is already taking place in Ohio, overdose death risk and the high potency rate of illicit opioids, seem to have risen to become key drivers for drug users. Consequently, traffickers may be motivated to enhance even more the potency of illicit opioids as a marketing tool to expand the volume of their business. Even though there is no evidence yet in publicly available reports, this is something that could take place in the EU as well.
5. Adding fentanyl to other illicit drugs to boost consumers’ loyalty:
Mixing fentanyl or one of its analogues with other illicit drugs (other than opioids, i.e. cocaine) could also be a new factor responsible for boosting the number of new opioid abusers. Individuals exposed to opioids consumption can develop “opioid use disorder” involving constant use and progressively increasing dose in response to “drug tolerance” to avoid withdrawal, “despite adverse consequences”.
While in the US, the lacing of fentanyl with other illicit drugs is becoming a common pattern among traffickers, more detailed data and information from toxicology analysis is still needed to prove that within the EU, fentanyl is methodically being mixed with cocaine and other illicit drugs.
The Internet based supply of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, especially on darknet marketplaces, could potentially contribute to aggravate the “opioid epidemic” in the US and to initiate an opioid epidemic in Europe, if not at a global level. Tackling the current illicit fentanyl supply sources, mostly in China, but also India, could not necessarily be an effective strategy to stop drug users’ shifting to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in the US and Europe.
Due to the synthetic nature of fentanyl , and the easy development of its analogues, has increased the potential of other countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, and Indonesia of becoming suppliers of synthetic opioids, in the near future. For this reason, convincing people to stop using drugs, treating drug addicts, and implementing public policies toward this goal could be a better way to stop the “opioid epidemic” in the US and prevent it from reaching a global crisis level.