Mexico Was 18 Years Late in Controlling the Chemical Used to Make Heroin

(Bloomberg Businessweek) — How did the chemical required to make heroin remain almost unregulated in Mexico as overdose deaths in the U.S. mounted? The answer seems to rest, in part, on the danger of default settings.



a group of shoes on the ground: Police photos from a May 2019 bust in Sinaloa state. The jugs contain acetic anhydride.


© Photographer: Jake Naughton for Bloomberg Businessweek
Police photos from a May 2019 bust in Sinaloa state. The jugs contain acetic anhydride.

The story starts in 1987. Amid a surge of violence and addiction driven by cocaine trafficking to the U.S., the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration made an embarrassing discovery: American companies were selling and exporting about 95% of the chemicals South American drug cartels used to make cocaine.

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Read More: The U.S. Narcotics Crisis Is Made in Mexico With American Raw Materials

The chemical companies were on an honor system; they were expected to contact the DEA when they suspected their products were being used for illegal purposes. But it wasn’t enough, as cartels easily tapped the legal export trade for industrial quantities of chemicals, especially solvents. Congress enhanced U.S. drug laws to clamp down on such chemicals, domestically and internationally, in 1988. Among other safeguards, companies were required to certify the legitimacy of buyers, get advance clearance for exports, and immediately report any losses, suspected diversions, or thefts. For failing to do so they could face criminal prosecution, fines, or even the loss of the licenses that allowed them to make and sell such chemicals.

The law had an immediate impact, but a long cat-and-mouse game ensued, as drug lords started buying chemicals from Europe. The U.S. fix was to aggressively push for a global system of regulations through treaty obligations, which required nations worldwide to control such chemicals through trade and as part of their domestic drug laws. That system is policed by a quasi-judicial agency of the United Nations called the International Narcotics Control Board, or INCB.

But some chemicals used to make illegal narcotics have had more clout in Washington than others, meaning they’ve been more lightly regulated from the start. None appears to have fared better than acetic anhydride, which is required to make heroin and also used by Mexican cartels over the past decade to make meth. The makers, distributors, and legal users of acetic anhydride convinced lawmakers and the DEA that anything other than the lightest controls would harm U.S. companies. Big Tobacco may have had the most to lose; the chemical’s largest use, by far, is in the production of cigarette filters. “These commodities are regular items of international commerce, and have been sold through chemical distributors for many, many years to innumerable industries, long before the current drug problem existed,” said the late John R. Hess, then-president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, at a 1989 congressional hearing. He said the government should do everything possible to avoid “disrupting legitimate commerce unnecessarily.”

Washington’s decision to regulate the chemical with a light touch echoed worldwide until the end of the 1990s, when the INCB saw a significant need for a fix. After studying the issue extensively, it determined acetic anhydride needed to be a top chemical target under international narcotics laws. It also said the chemical was made and used by a relatively small group of companies, meaning the stricter controls would have narrow implications for legal commerce. It raised acetic anhydride to a top target in 2001 and has said since then that no other chemical is more important.

Mexico, however, didn’t adopt the tougher international standard until the end of 2018, despite pressure over the past decade from the INCB. The country refused to budge throughout an American epidemic.

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