Freshly dumped hypodermic syringes litter an abandoned cemetery in Burma. Pic: AP.

Preventing the distribution of the chemicals used to manufacture heroin is essential in the fight against this deadly drug, writes Yury Fedotov

Grim reports about the impact of heroin on small communities in the United States and the tragic death of Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman have focused attention on this drug that kills around 100,000 people globally every year.

Heroin reaches the US mostly from Mexico and Colombia with only a small percentage arriving from Afghanistan, the world’s largest supplier of opiates. Based on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s estimates around 40 tons of Mexican heroin was manufactured in 2009.

It is also worth remembering that heroin is produced, not grown. This highly addictive drug is created in a process that sees the opiates turned into morphine and then heroin. Roughly seven to 10 tons of opiates are needed for every ton of heroin. But, without the combination of opiates with the chemical acetic anhydride, heroin would not be on the streets destroying families and wrecking lives.

Around 2 million tons of acetic anhydride are produced globally every year. It is used in the textile and wood industries, as well as for aspirin and modified starches. For every ton of heroin as much as 2 ½ tons of acetic anhydride is needed in the manufacturing process.

Based on UNODC’s estimates around 640 tons of this chemical are needed for global heroin production. That represents only 0.03 per cent of the world’s supply of acetic anhydride, revealing just how small the amount needed for drug production and the difficulty of tracking supply.

Stopping precursor chemical supplies is not new. The international community is currently engaged in this work, but there are challenges. We confront a host of front companies acting as distributors that hide numerous other front companies posing as end-users. The supply chains are long, complicated and difficult to break down.

Between 2007 to 2012 an annual average of about 130 tons of acetic anhydride were seized globally. The largest amounts were seized in Afghanistan, Europe, North America and South East Asia.

Going after the precursor chemicals means decisive action before the heroin is produced, not afterwards when the drug is being trafficked and sold to consumers. But it takes commitment and finances.

Studies in Hungary show that it costs more than 1,000 euros daily to observe a site where acetic anhydride is warehoused; a stake-out that could potentially last months. Unlike hard-pressed law enforcement agencies, the criminal networks can wait knowing that such operations cannot last forever.

Traffickers exploit transit loopholes and have become masterly at mislabelling and miss-declaring the chemical’s movement, and smuggling it into the main heroin producing countries. We have to be equally skilful at closing these loopholes and reinforcing our customs controls.

There is no silver bullet and many of the necessary systems are already in place. Export notifications, for instance, where origin, transit and destination countries inform each other of the movement of this chemical exist, but need to be followed through on every occasion. Coordination, and information-sharing among different law enforcement agencies needs to be deep and abiding.

The biggest problem, unfortunately, is in implementation. What is needed is a huge effort from every country to play their role in tracking acetic anhydride. Precursors also need to be moved further up the international order of priorities.

Nothing is more important than the need for every country to treat heroin use as an ongoing health issue focusing on prevention and treatment; but we can aid this approach by preventing the opiates being combined with acetic anhydride in the first place.

Article by Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This opinion piece first appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in German.