March 19, 2024 - 10:00am

Great Britain is getting ready for fentanyl. The country will soon have an early warning system, the Times reported on Friday, which will allow the Government to track the presence of synthetic drugs using wastewater surveillance and other epidemiological indicators.

Chris Philp, Minister for Crime and Policing, told the Times in advance of the system’s announcement that it was a strategy to help avoid a synthetic drug crisis like the one now taking over 100,000 lives a year in the United States, and another 8,000 in much smaller Canada.

The Government will also expand the availability of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, alongside bolstering enforcement efforts. Philp has also endorsed “drug-checking services” which can measure whether other drugs are tainted with fentanyl.

Such measures are an admirable, valuable effort to stave off the inevitable. In an increasingly global illicit drug market, the United Kingdom and Europe will eventually follow North America in the synthetic drugs transition. But policymakers can and should delay that shift as long as possible.

In some senses, the best time to worry is now, before things get bad. UK overdose death rates are still below those in the United States. There were about 8.4 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people in England and Wales in 2022, and 19.8 per 100,000 in Scotland, for a total rate of about 9.4 per 100,000 in Great Britain. The equivalent rate in the United States was 33.8 per 100,000.

But rates have been rising steadily across the United Kingdom since 2012. This is in part because the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of opioid consumption, thanks especially to high rates in Scotland. That hasn’t translated into US levels of overdose death principally because fentanyl remains rare. But the number of fentanyl-related deaths, while still small, is rising. And increasing the risk is the rising prevalence in the British drug supply of nitazenes, a class of highly potent synthetic opioids that is also starting to spread in the US.

The North American context, then, provides a grim glimpse of the UK’s future. In both America and Canada, drug overdose death rates have risen dramatically because of the spread of deadly synthetic opioids. In Canada, the opioid overdose death rate rose 150% between 2016 and 2022; in the US, the increase was “only” 63%.

What determines whether any country — including the UK — makes the transition to fentanyl? In some regards, it’s contingent. The US and Canada have largely unrestricted trade with Mexico, a nation large swathes of which are controlled by sophisticated cartels that have invested in the technology to produce fentanyl. The restriction of the synthetic drugs crisis to North America thus far is probably explained by the fact that those markets source their drugs from Mexico, while European drugs come mostly from Southeast Asia.

That said, the fentanyl transition is also a necessary consequence of drug markets working rationally. From a producer’s perspective, synthetic drugs are superior to organics on basically all dimensions: not subject to growing seasons, cheap to manufacture, easy to hide from law enforcement, and arbitrarily potent.

In short, fentanyl has replaced heroin in most US markets because it’s a much better product. At some point, the same pressures will push European markets to transition.

That point could be a very long time off, though. Fentanyl was first synthesised in 1959, and small drug operations have tried to take it mainstream in the US since at least the 1980s. But it wasn’t until the 2010s that it began really to spread in America. This represents a failure to innovate on the part of illicit market actors — and, consequently, a success of prohibition and enforcement in keeping the drug market less innovative.

How far off the UK is from the transition, too, is a function of how aggressively the Government targets the problem while it remains small. Steps such as the early warning system are an important part of that strategy, as are crackdowns on any fentanyl sales. The control over trade with the continent restored by Brexit could also prove important.

None of these measures will keep fentanyl out forever. But they will keep it out for a while, and time saved is lives saved.

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.