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Will the UN's 'global call to action' help America fight the opioid epidemic?

President Donald Trump addresses UN meeting on "Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem," in New York City, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Image: WhiteHouse.gov)

The international community reaffirmed its commitment to tackle a worsening worldwide drug problem Monday amid U.S. efforts to grapple with the global dimensions of the opioid crisis.

On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, 130 nations signed "Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem." They pledged to work cooperatively to fight a worldwide drug problem that kills nearly half a million people each year and led to more than 72,000 American deaths last year.

President Donald Trump chaired the meeting and said the U.S.-led initiative will take aim at four areas: reducing drug demand, cutting off supply, expanding access to treatment and improving international cooperation. "If we take these steps together, we can save the lives of countless people in all corners of the world," Trump said.

The global anti-drug initiative is part of a widely accepted recognition that no country is able to combat the international flow of narcotics alone.

Given the majority of opioids consumed in the United States are produced overseas and trafficked into the country, the agreement is also a significant step in U.S. foreign policy.

"This is an important change in U.S. policy and a foundation for what needs to be done that will affect neighborhoods and families in the United States," said John Walters, former U.S. drug czar and director of political studies at the Hudson Institute.

The new global initiative requires the signing nations to reaffirm their international drug control treaty obligations. That includes tracking drug precursors and legal drugs to prevent them from being trafficked through illicit channels. It also means law enforcement agencies must work together across borders to address drug-related crime and money laundering.

The U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated Trump's call, asking all nations to crack down on trafficking. "That means, denying safe haven to drug traffickers and better cross-border cooperation to pursue kingpins and dismantle networks," he said.

The recent surge in illicit opioid production and overdose deaths indicates the countries where drugs are produced, transferred and consumed are falling short of their obligations. Between 2016 to 2017, global opium production increased by 65 percent to 10,500 tons worldwide, according to 2018 World Drug Report. During that same time, opioids were involved in 76 percent of global drug-related deaths.

Formally signing a consensus agreement is only a first step and not sufficient to address the multinational dimensions of the illicit opioid trade. Walters explained that the United States would have to keep the pressure on foreign partners to combat drug trafficking networks and uphold their treaty obligations.

"International cooperation is going to be key, but make no mistake, we're not going to get here by saying please," he explained. "We’re going have to flex some muscle."

The United States has a number of foreign policy tools to enforce international drug control treaties.

For example, the State Department can name and shame countries that fail to address drug production and trafficking in its annual narcotics strategy report.

The United States can also decertify countries as partners in the global counter-narcotics fight, which means cutting U.S. aid, except drug aid. In 2017, President Trump threatened to decertify Colombia after a surge in coca production. In a Tuesday press conference with President Trump, Colombia's newly-elected president, Iván Duque, pledged to step up efforts to dismantle drug cartels.

As international partners pledge to do more, the United States is continuing domestic efforts to stop the trafficking and distribution of opioids, as well as providing more addiction resources.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration expanded cooperation with Mexico and China, the two primary countries of origin of heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl precursors. In the past 18 months, U.S. authorities have interdicted a record number of drugs, according to the Justice Department.

The U.S. intelligence community, which has been criticized for its non-response to the drug crisis is also stepping up. On Monday, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel said the agency "will invest more heavily in our counter-narcotics effort abroad to combat this terrible threat, one that has killed far more Americans than any terrorist ever has."

Local communities can also expect to see additional resources for addiction treatment and health care over the coming year. In the coming weeks, Congress is expected to approve a $4 billion funding package to address opioids.

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