Drug use is estimated to cause the loss of 42 million years of healthy life to disability or early death each year. Of the various categories of drugs, opioids are the most harmful, accounting for around two-thirds of the deaths attributed to drug use disorders globally. 

The non-medical use of synthetic opioids is currently fuelling public health crises in many countries. These substances represent a huge challenge for governments as they are easy to access and cheap to manufacture. 

Unlike ‘traditional’ plant-based opioids, synthetic opioids do not depend on growing seasons or climatic conditions. They can be manufactured in laboratories anywhere from readily available chemicals. 

Some opioids, such as fentanyl, are particularly harmful and are behind soaring rates of fatal overdoses, especially in North America. Preliminary figures indicate the situation is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic with rising fatalities in 2020-21. 

To help countries respond to these challenges, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched the Opioid Strategy in 2018.  

Coordinated by UNODC’s Laboratory and Scientific Service, the strategy brings together under one umbrella efforts by multiple UN entities in diverse fields of expertise connected to synthetic drugs. 

The Opioid Strategy helps forensic laboratories use the latest analytical methods to identify new substances and improve quality standards for drug testing. Cybercrime is another important area for capacity building as cryptocurrencies and the Darknet are increasingly used for online drug trafficking. 

The Opioid Strategy has also created a dedicated website, the UN Toolkit on Synthetic Drugs, as a UN-wide platform for resources on synthetic drugs including from the World Health Organization, Universal Postal Union, and International Narcotics Control Board. 

The UN Toolkit on Synthetic Drugs offers practical tools and guidance to help health practitioners, forensic experts and policymakers tackle threats posed by the most harmful, persistent, and prevalent synthetic drugs. It promotes policies which to ensure controlled medicines are accessible for pain relief and palliative care while preventing illicit diversion.   

The latest addition to the UN Toolkit on Synthetic Drugs is the Health Responses Series, which focuses on the treatment and care of drug use disorders, opioid overdose management, substance use prevention strategies and stigma reduction.