Jeremy Douglas is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok.
Fentanyl has disrupted the North American drug market, capitalizing on pre-existing demand for opiates such as heroin and prescription pharmaceuticals. And as we see from the headlines, it has been deadly. But there is more to the story of fentanyl than overdose deaths. When any industry is disrupted, there is displacement and there are indications that the shift to synthetic drugs such as fentanyl is starting to impact those that make a living at the bottom end of the opium and heroin economy in Asia.
In the Golden Triangle we've seen a big drop in opium production and wholesale prices. In December, the UN's Myanmar opium survey reported cultivation dropped by a quarter overall, and in some areas by more than a third. This sounds good, but it is not a clear-cut victory. The decline in opium and heroin production is happening alongside a sustained expansion of synthetic drug production in East and Southeast Asia.
Fentanyl is highly attractive to organized crime and aspiring criminal entrepreneurs. Compared to heroin, it is more potent, has higher profit margins and – because it is compact – has simpler logistics. And it can be cut into, or even replace entirely, the supply of heroin and other opiates. For opium farmers, the shift to synthetics is hugely disruptive – like when a factory automates and lays off workers. The number of jobs goes down and profits are concentrated in the hands of a few managers and executives. These are not good trends for unstable places such as Myanmar. We could celebrate shrinking poppy fields, but we should also plan for a hangover.
The opium economy in Myanmar supports a large population. In Shan State, where production is centred, approximately 600,000 people are directly supported by opium farming. There are no obvious alternatives that can provide comparable employment and income levels.
There are also well-documented links between drug production and conflict. If the shift toward synthetic drugs continues, these links will not go away – the parts of Myanmar where drug production is concentrated are under the control of armed groups that are closely connected to, or aligned with, organized crime. What changes is the benefit that poor farmers get from drug production. When drug production no longer requires large-scale farming, "blue-collar" jobs in the field will vanish.
With rose-tinted glasses on, we could imagine a future where farmers are "liberated" from opium production and move into other work. But that vision depends on those farmers having other opportunities. As with disruption in any industry, when innovation changes the landscape, those that can manipulate technology are more valuable. With synthetic drugs there is a premium on skilled lab technicians and those that can organize industrial-scale production – think Breaking Bad. It also depends on a belief that liberation from opium production means liberation from conflict. But a clear-eyed look would see through these assumptions. Fentanyl disruption in North America may cause displacement of population and additional turmoil in places such as Myanmar.
Telling people in disrupted labour markets to "go do something else" may work if they are skilled engineers, but not if they are poor and illiterate farmers in the remote highlands of Myanmar. As the shift toward synthetics such as fentanyl continues, opium and heroin-producing areas of Myanmar are likely to experience significant economic and political upheaval. Organized crime bosses and traffickers in the region certainly won't suffer – they are opportunists that thrive in conflict zones and will simply make fentanyl or other synthetic drugs. But people at the bottom end of the economy with few options will stagnate or migrate. Myanmar has experienced more than its share of population displacement and conflict recently and this may be one more kick. The effect on current fighting and peace negotiations is unpredictable, but in the short term it will almost certainly be negative.
The shift to synthetics is a challenge from Montreal to Myanmar. As we scramble to respond to overdoses in North America, we also need to acknowledge there will be implications for combustible places in Asia such as the Golden Triangle and Myanmar. At the same time, we need to think about solutions – including increased co-operation with Asia focusing on synthetics and the chemical trade, coordinating enforcement efforts that target the top levels of transnational organized crime and market demand.
Fentanyl's deadly disruptive rise has been most visible on the streets of North America, but its impact is starting to spread. When we see the next fentanyl bust or debate a government plan to turn the situation around, we also need to remember that the illegal drug business is complex and global in nature.