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Stimulant Summit: CBP Says Familiar Flows of Drugs are Shifting

November 22, 2020

A combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in e-commerce has changed familiar traffic patterns around the globe for several illicit substances, Stephen McConachie, chief operations manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Cocaine, Meth & Stimulant Summit attendees in a Sunday session.

“That is something that further complicates our efforts not just on the U.S. border, but also for the American law enforcement community and public health community throughout North America and the world,” McConachie said.

Seizures of cocaine and methamphetamine coming from Europe, for example, are on the rise. Fentanyl, which mostly had been arriving from China prior to the Chinese government enacting a crackdown on the substance and its analogues in 2019, is now starting to show up at the United States’ southwest border from Mexico. Marijuana “is starting to look like the beer industry,” McConachie said, as it is becoming more commonly imported from and exported to countries around the world.

McConachie presented a series of highlights of what CBP has observed in terms of the flow of drugs into and out of the U.S. over the past year. Among the highlights:

Cocaine. Mostly originating from South America, cocaine currently has a much higher street value in Europe, Australia and Japan compared to the United States, leading some to argue that the cartels are sending more product to those destinations. Still, the flow of cocaine into the U.S. is on the rise. In October, CBP seized a significantly higher amount of cocaine compared to the same month in 2019, an inflation boosted by a few especially large busts, McConachie said.

Methamphetamine. CBP border seizures of methamphetamine have been rising, almost commensurately, with methamphetamine overdose deaths in the U.S. over the past decade, McConachie said. In October, the first month of the agency’s fiscal year, seizures are up double-digits over last year.

Heroin. After a decline largely attributed to users switching to synthetics, heroin seizures were significantly higher in October compared to the previous year, much like the aforementioned stimulants. McConachie cautioned, however, that seizures are not necessarily an indication of flow.

With traffic significantly limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the same number of agents patrolling borders, inspectors have been able to devote more intense scrutiny to a smaller number of vehicles crossing borders, which, in turn, has led to more seizures, McConachie said.

Fentanyl. While seizures of fentanyl in the U.S. continue to rise by weight, a notable development is that what is making its way to U.S. borders now is in tablet form coming from Mexico instead of the more pure powder form that emanated from China. Tablets have 1-2% purity vs. over 50% purity found in the powder form, so while seizure weights climb, the number of actual doses of fentanyl coming in may not be as high. Still, the total number of fentanyl seizures at the southwest border are significantly up, as well as seizures of fentanyl analogues. CBP made one such seizure from 2017 to August 2020. In September and October 2020 alone, CBP has made five fentanyl analogue seizures, McConachie said.

“What that tells me is that the Mexican cartels are expanding their product line,” he said.

How much hoarding?

One looming area of concern for border patrol officials is the possibility that a significant amount of illicit substances are being hoarded during the pandemic. In much the same way that Americans have stocked up on household supplies, there is a belief that drug traffickers could be sitting on large stockpiles, waiting for travel restrictions to be eased post-pandemic.

“We don’t know how much is out there, and when the floodgates open, we are, quite frankly, concerned about how much will be coming into the United States and traveling around the world,” McConachie said.

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