The Drug Threats and Cartels Endangering America

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released the 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), shedding light on current drug threats in the U.S. This year’s report underscores a critical shift from plant-based drugs to synthetics, presenting a new era of challenges for law enforcement and public health officials. “This shift has resulted in the most dangerous and deadly drug crisis the U.S. has ever faced,” states Anne Milgram, the DEA Administrator. Unlike the production challenges posed by plant-based drugs, synthetics can be made anytime, anywhere with the right chemicals and equipment, making them highly profitable for criminal organizations.

The Role of Cartels

In this report, emphasis is placed on the global operations of both the Sinaloa and Jalisco Cartels, key players in this drug crisis. Through their extensive network as transnational criminal organizations, they have managed to infiltrate every part of the supply chain and eliminate any drug competition within the U.S. With a presence in every state and using social media and messaging apps, they’re able to flood U.S. communities with methamphetamine, fentanyl, other drugs, and weapons. Despite regulations placed on precursor chemicals for both methamphetamine and fentanyl production by the Mexican and Chinese governments, these cartels manage to obtain chemicals, pill presses, and use money laundering organizations from China to earn billions.

Escalating Overdose Crisis

The DEA continues to seize record quantities of fentanyl and analysis finds higher purity in both powder and pills containing fentanyl. The DEA estimates that 7 out of 10 counterfeit pills contain a deadly dose of fentanyl and since 2021, the purity of fentanyl powder increased by 33 percent. Similarly, methamphetamine produced by these cartels has reached unprecedented levels of purity and potency. Produced in large-scale super labs, they manufacture mass quantities of methamphetamine and distribute not only throughout the U.S. but globally.

The cartels are also strategically creating products to appeal to diverse segments of users. For example, black tar fentanyl powder targets the black tar heroin market, colored fentanyl pills may attract those who use club drugs, and methamphetamine manufactured in pill form with colors and logos targets prescription stimulant and MDMA users. Methamphetamine and fentanyl deaths in the U.S. are directly connected to these cartels. The DEA also highlights the rise in nitazenes, a type of synthetic opioid, as well as xylazine, an animal sedative, found mixed with fentanyl, along with cocaine, heightening overdose risk.

Additional Drug Threats

Despite the lucrative synthetic drug trade, cartels continue manufacturing and trafficking other drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Asian organized crime groups are increasingly involved in the cultivation and trafficking of marijuana from both the legal and black markets, using the millions in profit to fund other crimes like human trafficking and money laundering. The DEA notes the concerning rapid rise in the potency of THC, accidental poisonings among children, and environmental damages linked to marijuana.

Additional highlights include the diversion of controlled prescription drugs, the downward trend in seizures for new psychoactive substances such as phenethylamines, cannabinoids and cathinones, and the use of illicit financing methods such as Chinese underground banking systems, cryptocurrency, and bulk cash smuggling to fund illicit drug operations.

DEA Response

Through the release of this report, public awareness campaigns such as One Pill Can Kill, and community outreach, the DEA aims to save lives. Their primary focus is to defeat the Sinaloa and Jalisco Cartels. Initiatives like Operation Overdrive, Operation OD Justice, and Operation Last Mile provide resources to communities plagued with overdoses and violence, including training for fatal overdose poisoning investigations and tracking the cartels distribution network. They are also working to expand access to treatment for the millions of Americans suffering from an opioid use disorder.

Learn more about these drug threats and the extensive operations of cartels here.

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