September 16, 2019

Opioid Crisis

UN Commission on Crime Prevention & Criminal Justice

Topic: Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis, or opioid epidemic, is a decades-long international public health and criminal justice issue that has impacted millions of people. In 2019, half a million people died due to drug overdose and 18 million years of life were lost, mostly due to opioids. Opioids are a class of drug that are used in pain treatment, which includes opiates (substances derived from opium poppy such as morphine, codeine, and heroin) and semi-synthetic and fully synthetic drugs. Opioids have existed for centuries, have been used in medicine and recreationally, and public health crises related to opioid misuses and addiction have occurred globally. Governments have limited legal use and attempted to curtail illegal trafficking and consumption. However, use of opioids skyrocketed in the end of the 20th century when they were legally prescribed as a treatment for chronic pain. These drugs proved to be highly addictive, resulting in a massive increase in opioid overuse and misuse, with many turning to illegal drug use when prescription drugs were no longer available. This expanded the already large international market for the illicit production and trafficking of opioids.

Illegal production and trafficking of opioids spans the globe, and the region where the opioid is produced may be thousands of miles away from its end consumer. Production of opiates that are derived from opium poppy, such as heroin, are regionally locked, as the plants are only grow in certain regions, but preventing the cultivation and transport of these opioids has still proved a daunting challenge. The rapid increase in market for synthetic opioids has increased the complexity of halting production, as these drugs can be produced anywhere without the need for agriculture. Moreover, while demand for opioids has increased, the demand for specific opioids have been shown to be highly elastic and substitutable (for instance, if heroin becomes too difficult to find or to expensive, users will substitute with tramadol or fentanyl). Vast criminal enterprises have arisen around opioid production and trafficking, which makes crackdown on opioid trade exceedingly difficult and dangerous. In addition to responding to opioid production, there is also a need to respond to the demand for opioids, which presents a legitimate public health and medical quandary. Millions of people are currently opioid-dependent and require treatment, but may also have committed crimes in obtaining or using opioids. Opioids do have a legitimate use case for pain management, but failing to manage medicinal use properly can result in more addiction and diversion of medical supplies for illegal distribution.

The mission of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice at this meeting is to provide policy to direct the international community in further responding the opioid crisis. The UN already has several conventions on in international drug control and organized crime, has empowered the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to capacity-build and coordinate nations’ effort to reduce drug crime, and the UNODC has an Opioid Strategy and Synthetic Drug Strategy. What more could be done to prevent opioid manufacturing and trafficking? Where are nations and international cooperation failing to address this issue? How do we ensure that opioids can continue to be used medically, while responding to illegal use? How should nations respond to individuals who are already opioid-dependent? What are emerging threats in the opioid crisis that might require a new policy response? These are questions to consider as the Commission seeks to address the opioid crisis.

Further Reading:

UN Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report 2021, Executive Summary:

International Drug Control Conventions:

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