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Latin American Synthetic Drug Consumption Remains Modest: UNODC

Synthetic drugs are growing in prevalence around the world, but consumer markets in Latin America remain limited.

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The production of synthetic drugs has increased worldwide, but consumer markets in Latin America and the Caribbean remain small-scale, according to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The World Drug Report 2023, published by the UNODC on June 26, underscores how synthetic drug production is inherently different from plant-based drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.

Synthetic drugs can be produced anywhere, at any time, unconstrained by the climate restrictions that limit coca and opium poppy cultivation. Synthetic drug production is also more discrete — it does not require large fields of illicit crops — allowing producers to avoid detection by authorities. These factors have led to the rise in synthetic drugs such as captagon in the Middle East, tramadol in parts of Africa and Central Asia, and fentanyl in North America.

Rapid, unregulated growth in the pharmaceutical sector has also contributed to the explosion in synthetic drug production by facilitating illicit drug producers’ access to precursor chemicals, the report said.  

Tusi: The Pink Drug Cocktail That Tricked Latin America

Amid this boom, the UNODC reported, small-scale consumer markets for synthetic drugs have developed in South America. Ketamine seizures are increasingly common, although data shows that usage of the drug has decreased since the 2010s. Ketamine often appears as an ingredient in “tusi,” a popular synthetic drug also known as “pink cocaine.” Originating in Latin America, the drug has been seized in North America and Europe since 2019.

The report also touched on other major drug developments in the region, including an in-depth case study of drug trafficking in the Amazon that shows its close ties to illegal logging and mining. Cocaine supply and demand worldwide are reportedly higher than ever, with emerging markets playing an ever-increasing role in cocaine flows, the report also notes.

InSight Crime Analysis

Synthetic drug markets in Latin America and the Caribbean have remained small-scale, partly because of a lack of an established consumer market for opioids. Still, regional consumption of plant-based drugs like cocaine and marijuana could pave the way for increased synthetic drug use.

Although it has caused hundreds of thousands of overdoses in the United States, fentanyl consumption has not taken hold in Latin America. Small fentanyl seizures have occurred in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, but there is no evidence of organized illicit production for a consumer market in these countries.

Fentanyl has not emerged because consumption only occurs where there is an already established opioid market, UNODC research officer Bryce Pardo told InSight Crime.

“There’s not a major heroin market in South America. There’s not a major diverted prescription opioid market in South America,” he said. “Fentanyl really is not going to show up there to any great extent.”

But northern Mexico is another case. In a visit to Mexicali and Tijuana in 2022, InSight Crime found that some fentanyl destined for the United States is diverted for local consumption, mainly among heroin addicts. This has resulted in hundreds of overdose deaths since it first appeared in the area around 2017.

Uruguay Makes Historic Seizure of European Meth

While mass fentanyl consumption in the region may be unlikely, other synthetic drugs are more popular.

Consumer markets for some drugs have already emerged in the Southern Cone, with authorities seizing party drugs such as MDMA in greater quantities in recent years. MDMA is also being produced in the region: sophisticated labs devoted to MDMA production were uncovered in Brazil in 2021, a testament to significant domestic demand.

The most abused drug in the region is cocaine, the UNODC reported. Following the logic of heroin usage leading to fentanyl consumption, cocaine usage could also lead to greater consumption of similar stimulants, Pardo told InSight Crime.

“Maybe in the future, you could see a synthetic drug that is similar to cocaine as a stimulant party drug. I don’t know if it’s methamphetamine or if it’s something else like MDMA or ketamine,” he said.

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