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US drug czar wants India to stem flow of chemicals used by Mexican cartels for fentanyl

Louisville Courier-Journal 12/1/2022 Beth Warren and Suryanshi Pandey

NEW DELHI, India — Dr. Rahul Gupta, the U.S. drug czar, returned to his native country this month to meet with Indian officials on a joint mission to reduce the illegal flow of chemicals used to make deadly fentanyl.

For years, Mexican cartels have bought precursor chemicals from China and used them to make synthetic drugs like fentanyl and meth in Mexican super labs. The drugs are then smuggled into the U.S. But in the last few years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has cautioned in its National Drug Threat Assessments that cartels are increasing the amounts they get from India. It's capital, New Delhi, has significant pharmaceutical and chemical industries and international ports.

Gupta discussed his concern about fentanyl, largely blamed for 107,000 overdose deaths last year, when a reporter with The Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, met with him in West Virginia in August. He said he is haunted by a somber statistic: On average, someone dies of a drug overdose every five minutes.

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And three out of four overdose deaths are now linked to opioids, mostly illicit fentanyl. In Kentucky in 2021, 2,250 residents died from drug overdoses, with fentanyl identified in 1,639, or 72.8%, of the deaths, according to the state's annual Overdose Fatality Report.

Gupta, the first physician to serve as director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, helped shepherd through the first U.S.-India Counter Narcotics Agreement. His staff has been working with Indian officials since 2020, forming three working groups to address the problem: One is focused on law enforcement; one on public health; and the other on international regulatory affairs.

Fentanyl pills confiscated by agents © DEA Fentanyl pills confiscated by agents

Gupta's visit this month to Delhi, where he graduated from medical school, emphasized the importance the White House places on this mission. Similarly, American officials have been encouraged by the sense of urgency and commitment by Indian officials and the visibility the issue is getting because of the involvement of India's Minister of Home Affairs Shri Amit Shah.

"The US-India relationship on health care is critical, as India hopes to be one of the global leaders," Gupta told a freelance journalist for The Courier Journal during an interview on his trip to Delhi.

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"The oldest democratic country and the largest democratic country are trying to come together to work strategically in curbing drug threats."

In Delhi, Gupta met with several officials, including India's director general of Narcotics Control Bureau, Satya Narayan Pradhan.

U.S. drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta (right) visits New Delhi to formalize a partnership with India officials, including Narcotics Control Bureau director Satya Narayan Pradhan (left) to target dangerous chemicals illegally sent to Mexico to make deadly drugs that end up in the U.S. © Courtesy of U.S. ONDCP U.S. drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta (right) visits New Delhi to formalize a partnership with India officials, including Narcotics Control Bureau director Satya Narayan Pradhan (left) to target dangerous chemicals illegally sent to Mexico to make deadly drugs that end up in the U.S.

"We, here in India, are facing almost the same kind of challenge as far as narcotics is concerned," the director of India's agency targeting drug trafficking told a reporter. "Drug syndication needs to be curbed. Hence two democratically strong countries are trying to meet this challenge together."

Pradhan said the Narcotics Control Bureau has raided illegal chemical manufacturers posing as legitimate pharmaceutical companies and continues to seek out illegal shipments at India's borders.

The DEA's National Drug Threat Assessment published in 2020 cautioned: "While Mexico and China are the primary source countries for fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances trafficked directly into the United States, India is emerging as a source for finished fentanyl powder and fentanyl precursor chemicals."

Some first steps don't require changes in law, just effort. The U.S. is urging Indian officials to require chemical companies to include more details in labels on large shipments headed out of the country. This would include the exact chemicals and the amounts. Some chemicals have legitimate destinations, such as pharmaceutical companies or research labs. However, shipments headed to individual homes or suspicious companies should raise red flags.

U.S. drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta discussed his concerns about deadly fentanyl and other illicit drugs during a roundtable with law enforcement, public health officials, business and faith leaders during a recent trip to West Virginia. © Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal U.S. drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta discussed his concerns about deadly fentanyl and other illicit drugs during a roundtable with law enforcement, public health officials, business and faith leaders during a recent trip to West Virginia.

U.S. officials also want their Indian counterparts to take notice of the exportation of suspicious equipment. This includes rotary evaporators, which have a legitimate use in chemical labs, but can be used by criminals to make fentanyl. Other examples are dye molds and pill presses, increasingly used by Mexican cartels to make fentanyl into the shape and color of prescription pain pills, often without the dealers' or users' knowledge.

"Since India has a pharmaceutical industry expanding, we don’t want to repeat the same issue which we faced in China," Gupta said. "Thus, monitoring of pharmaceutical companies, raiding and labelling of shipments are some of the critical steps to be taken." 

The U.S. Senate confirmed Gupta as the nation's drug czar in October. He oversees an annual budget of $449 million and directs task forces across the country that unite local and state police with special agents from various federal agencies, including the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

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The Biden administration, including Gupta, charted a two-pillared approach with a goal of saving 165,000 lives by 2025. One pillar focuses on harm reduction. That includes: increased availability to the opioid antidote naloxone; preventative programs for youth; and expanded access to addiction treatment. While in India, Gupta visited addiction prevention and treatment clinics.

The other pillar centers on law enforcement efforts to target drug trafficking.

Indian officials are expected to discuss ways to intercept illegal shipments of chemicals during a planned trip to Washington, D.C., next summer.

"Indian officials understand well that the drug issue is now a global problem, and coming on-board with the U.S. will help in expanding their mission, too," Gupta said.

Sooryanshi Pandey is a freelance reporter in India. Reach Courier Journal reporter Beth Warren at: bwarren@courier-journal.com; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: US drug czar wants India to stem flow of chemicals used by Mexican cartels for fentanyl

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