Characterization of the Synthetic Opioid Threat Profile to Inform Inspection and Detection Solutions

by Bryce Pardo, Lois M. Davis, Melinda Moore

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Research Questions

  1. Where are synthetic opioids having the greatest impact on health outcomes, based on overdose mortality data?
  2. Where should U.S. Customs and Border Protection and law enforcement focus their screening efforts?
  3. How do online vendors market and supply product sent to the United States?
  4. What compounds are being used as cutting agents, and to what extent can these agents be detected?
  5. What are the national and regional trends in the seizures of synthetic opioids, and what is the evolution of the chemical profile of the supply of synthetic opioids?

The opioid overdose crisis has continued to accelerate in recent years because of the arrival of potent synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and related substances. Although several synthetic opioids have legitimate medical applications, the majority of overdoses are due to illicitly manufactured imports. Researchers from the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center evaluated publicly available data to better understand the dimensions of the consumption and supply of these substances. They performed four tasks designed to gain insight into this new and quickly evolving phenomenon: (1) They evaluated trends in overdoses across regions and over time. Understanding where overdoses due to synthetic opioids occur provides a rough proxy for where law enforcement should prioritize screening efforts for packages that enter the country destined for such markets. (2) They evaluated the supply of fentanyl and related substances using public data from state and local forensic laboratories that report to national systems. The authors note a relationship between lab exhibits and fatal overdoses across regions and over time. (3) They examined the online markets for synthetic opioids. The team collected quantitative and qualitative data from online marketplaces and vendors to better understand what supply and concealment mechanisms vendors use when shipping product to the United States. (4) They evaluated the adulterants and other bulking agents used in retail distribution. There are limitations to each of these approaches, and the authors provide caveats to interpreting their findings.

Key Findings

The number of deaths from overdose of synthetic opioids has trended upward over time

  • The national rate of synthetic opioid deaths was 6.2 per 100,000 in 2016 and 9 per 100,000 in 2017.

Trends in synthetic opioid seizures are evolving

  • The number of seizures containing fentanyl and related substances is increasing over time.
  • Many of the new fentanyl analogs reported in National Forensic Laboratory Information System data have never been reported in drug markets until now.
  • Variation in drug seizure content suggests that different regions might be supplied by different sources.

The supply and trafficking of synthetic opioids differ from those for other drugs

  • Synthetic opioids are produced in independent laboratories and are highly potent relative to their weight. They are readily available online.
  • Online vendors regularly use the postal or other private consignment couriers to transmit packages.
  • Online vendors often assess the risk of interdiction as being low and even offer to reship an order at no cost should a package be lost, stolen, or interdicted.

Additional information is needed on the chemicals associated with cutting and packaging of synthetic opioids for retail

  • The majority of product on offer from retailers overseas is reported to be highly pure.
  • Most of the product listings sold in online marketplaces are for powder formulation.
  • Two-thirds of analyzed fentanyl cases reported to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System contain no other drug mixtures. However, about a quarter of fentanyl seizures in recent years also contain heroin, followed by other opioids at 4 percent.

Recommendations

  • Use mortality and other poisoning and injury data to inform the targeting of packages from abroad that are destined for markets where synthetic opioids pose the greatest threat.
  • Improve data collection and analysis of drug seizures by standardizing measures collected across all international mail facilities, express consignment carriers, and land points of entry.
  • Enhance cooperation with other federal agencies and departments to better understand the nature and supply of synthetic opioids.
  • Enhance collaboration and exchange of data with counterparts in law enforcement and border protection in other countries.
  • Conduct controlled deliveries for analytic purposes.
  • Consider targeting bulk shipments hidden in cargo from China at points of entry.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Emerging Trends in Fatal Synthetic Opioid Overdoses

  • Chapter Three

    The Evolution of Synthetic Opioid Seizures

  • Chapter Four

    Supply and Trafficking Methods for Synthetic Opioids

  • Chapter Five

    Chemicals Associated with Cutting and Packaging Synthetic Opioids for Retail

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions and Recommendations

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate and conducted within the Acquisition and Development Program within the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.