Synthetic Opioids, Ukrainian Grain, the Metaverse: RAND Weekly Recap

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June 24, 2022

This week, we discuss ways to counter the illegal flow of synthetic opioids; unblocking the Black Sea to free up Ukrainian grain; the link between poor sleep and dementia; mental health services in NYC; California's food recovery mandate; and defining the metaverse.

An animated gif explains that synthetic opioids are a public health, national security, supply chain, cyber crime, economic, and homeland security problem, then uses underlined text to state that synthetic opioids are 'an everything problem.'

Design by Alyson Youngblood/RAND Corporation

Synthetic Opioids Are an 'Everything Problem'

Between June 2020 and May 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. This is more than twice the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents or gun violence during the same period. About two-thirds of those fatal overdoses involved illegally produced synthetic opioids—primarily fentanyl, which is easy to produce, highly potent, and often laced into heroin and other substances without users' knowledge.

As the world prepares to recognize the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking this Sunday, we're highlighting a unique effort to counter the illegal flow of synthetic opioids into the United States: the congressional Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking. RAND's David Luckey and Bryce Pardo served on the staff, supporting the commission's research, analysis, and report writing.

In the end, the commission came up with 78 recommendations to reduce both the supply of and the demand for synthetic opioids. They range from cracking down on money laundering by criminal organizations to exploring ways to help people struggling with substance use. A comprehensive approach is key, because synthetic opioids aren't just a public health problem, a homeland security problem, or a supply chain problem—they're an everything problem.

An employee works as grains are loaded in a special transport cargo bound for Egypt, in the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania, May 11, 2022, photo by Olimpiu Gheorghiu/Reuters

Grains are loaded in a special transport cargo bound for Egypt, in the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania, May 11, 2022

Photo by Olimpiu Gheorghiu/Reuters

Unblocking the Black Sea for Ukrainian Grain

Ukraine is a leading grain exporter—the world's fourth largest before the war. But because of Russian blockades around Odesa, Ukraine's grain exports are on the decline, and some 22 million tons could rot if not exported soon. To avert famine in poor countries, RAND experts say that navies of willing nations could escort grain shipments out of Odesa. Such a mission could be completed without Russian cooperation, at what might be an acceptable cost and risk.

An older man sitting on the edge of his bed, photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Compared with white Americans, Black Americans have higher rates of sleep problems, as well as higher rates and earlier onset of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. A new RAND study finds that, among a group of low-income African American adults, more fragmented sleep and longer periods of wakefulness after bedtime were associated with lower cognitive function. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that improving sleep health may address the disproportionate burden of dementias that falls on Black Americans and socioeconomically disadvantaged people.

A man waits for the subway at the Times Square stop in New York, December 19, 2012, photo by Andrew Burton/Reuters

A man waits for the subway at the Times Square stop in New York, December 19, 2012

Photo by Andrew Burton/Reuters

How Available and Accessible Are Mental Health Services in NYC?

Use of mental health services in the United States is low and is not equitably distributed. Non-Hispanic white people are more likely to use such services than non-Hispanic Black people or Hispanic people. In the nation's largest city, these inequities are especially difficult to overcome given the size of the population and its diversity in income, culture, ethnicity, and language. A new RAND report looks at the availability of mental health services in New York City, and what makes them harder or easier for people to use.

A graphic of the scales of justice over an image of palm trees on a blue sky, with the words "A new law SB 1383". Graphic by Glory Film Co. Philanthropy

SB 1383 was signed into law in 2016, establishing specific targets for reducing organic waste in California landfills

Graphic by Glory Film Co. Philanthropy

Assessing California's Food Recovery Mandate

Organic waste in landfills emits 20 percent of California's methane, and an estimated 1.1 million tons of potentially donatable food ended up in landfills in 2018. Yet, more than 250,000 households in Los Angeles County experienced food insecurity last year. A new law aims to address these issues by reducing the disposal of organic waste and recovering would-be wasted food for human consumption. RAND researchers assess the challenges related to implementing the law and offer recommendations for improving food recovery efforts.

Art installation “Machine Hallucinations—Space: Metaverse” by artist Refik Anadol, in Hong Kong, China, September 30, 2021, photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Art installation “Machine Hallucinations—Space: Metaverse” by artist Refik Anadol, in Hong Kong, China, September 30, 2021

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters

What Is the Metaverse?

Metaverse is often used to describe anything that blends augmented reality, virtual reality, digital avatars, and blockchain technologies. But there is no agreed-upon definition of the metaverse. According to Swaptik Chowdhury of the Pardee RAND Graduate School and RAND researcher Timothy Marler, this lack of clarity stifles important discussion about risks and opportunities. “A clear definition might go a long way toward building a decentralized metaverse in which everyone can safely participate,” they say.

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