MS MCKEWAN: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us for this call to preview the Secretary’s participation in a virtual ministerial to launch the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats. Our briefer today is Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Todd Robinson. Today’s call is on-the-record and is embargoed until the end – conclusion of the call.
So now I’ll turn this over to Assistant Secretary Robinson for some opening remarks. Please, go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON: Thanks, Jennifer. And thanks, everybody, for joining us. As you all know, the department is intensifying efforts with international partners to confront illicit synthetic drug and fentanyl supply chains as a top public health and national security priority.
On July 7th, Secretary Blinken will host a virtual ministerial to launch a Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats. This coalition seeks to unite countries worldwide in a concerted effort to prevent the illicit manufacture and trafficking of synthetic drugs, identify emerging drug trends, and respond effectively to their public health impacts.
Synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine pose a grave risk to the health and security of citizens in the United States, while more countries face increasing danger from these and other synthetic drugs like tramadol, Captagon, MDMA, and ketamine. The CDC estimates that nearly 110,000 Americans died of drug overdose in 2022, more deaths than caused by firearms and automobile accidents combined. More than two-thirds of those fatality – fatal overdoses involved synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.
Domestically the administration is committed to preventing drug use, minimizing its negative impact by connecting people to treatment and supporting the more than 20 million Americans in recovery. President Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy allocated $24 billion in this fiscal year to strengthen U.S. drug-related public health interventions. These measures help safeguard our citizens’ health and demonstrate our dedication at home, as we encourage other nations to take actions.
Through the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drugs, we can overcome this crisis by combining our efforts as a global community to share our knowledge and resources. International cooperation is paramount to more effectively disrupting illicit synthetic drug supply chains, enhance our ability to identify and respond to emerging threats, and protect the lives and wellbeing of American citizens and people around the world.
This administration is fully committed to preventing drug use and minimizing its negative impact. We understand the importance of connecting individuals to treatment and supporting the 20 million Americans in recovery.
In closing, let me express my gratitude to our international partners who have already agreed to join us in this crucial endeavor. The fight against synthetic drugs requires a global response, and we are confident that our collective efforts will yield significant results. Together, we will create a safer and healthier future for our citizens and generations to come.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.
MS MCKEWAN: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Robinson, for those remarks. Operator, if you could please repeat the instructions for asking a question.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, you can press 1 and then 0 on your telephone keypad. You can withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1, 0 command. And if you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing those numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press 1, 0 at this time.
And one moment.
MS MCKEWAN: Great. Thanks very much. Let’s first go to the line of Edward Wong from The New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I’d like to ask whether – how many countries will be in this coalition? And will China be taking part? I know that Secretary Blinken has spoken very publicly about the role of precursors coming from China, and it seems that China has been reluctant to engage in efforts with the U.S. to stem those recently. Can you tell us whether China will be in this coalition and take part tomorrow? And where exactly do talks stand right now between the U.S. and China on efforts to stem the precursors? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON: Thank you. So right now we have about 84 countries committed to participating and a number of international organizations. We’ve invited China. We don’t have any indication at the moment that they’re going to participate. But what I would say is this is the beginning of the process, and our hope is that all responsible countries will eventually participate between now and over the next year.
MS MCKEWAN: Great. Thanks very much. Let’s next go to the line of Iain Marlow from Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Hi, Assistant Secretary. Thanks for doing this. I’d just like to follow up on Ed’s question there about China. If they’re not part of this, is there any hope that there could be sort of meaningful progress in limiting some of these precursor chemicals that are coming via third countries?
And just to sort of – another follow-up here, just given the recentness of Secretary Blinken’s visit to China and the attempt to get a working group established with China on fentanyl, is there any – I know there was some progress there, but that they hadn’t sort of formally agreed to have the working group yet. They were going to kind of keep talking about what it would look like. I was just wondering if you could give any sort of update on that, just given how close we are to that visit and also how crucial China is in the whole fentanyl sort of issue. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON: Sure. Thanks for the question. What I – well, I’ll take the second part of your question first. We have had successful cooperation in the past with the PRC on counternarcotics. And although they may not be engaged in these – they have not engaged with us on this issue in recent months, we continue to actively seek their cooperation both to stop criminal diversion of chemicals to illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. We assess that the PRC needs to do more as a global partner to disrupt illicit synthetic drug supply chains, which leads me to the second part: is there any hope?
Of course, there’s hope. Just because the PRC is not talking to the United States, they are talking to other countries. And part of the reason we’re trying to bring this coalition together is to engage other countries in their efforts against these supply chains and part of their responsibility is going to be engaging with the PRC. This is not just about the United States and the PRC. This is a global problem that’s going to be – that’s going to require a global response. And having other – just because – we think having other countries engage with the PRC will eventually bear fruit.
MS MCKEWAN: Great. Let’s next go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson from LA Times.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Hey, Todd. Good to hear from you. Sort of the same line, what about Mexico? Has Mexico agreed to participate in this? They’re kind of the other piece in the supply chain, and President López Obrador has been a little off and on about fentanyl. So are they going to participate? And if they don’t participate and China doesn’t participate, what real prospects does this coalition have to make any progress? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON: So the short answer is, yes, Mexico is participating. We expect Foreign Secretary Bárcena to join the other ministerials and the plenary, so, yes, Mexico is on board. The other part of your question, I would say is, look, the United States and Mexico have been engaged over a long period of time on not just this issue but drug trafficking in general. The U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for security, public health, and safer communities allows us to partner with Mexico to strengthen the targeting and interdiction of synthetic drugs and precursors. That gives us the framework by which, on a bilateral basis, we’re able to work very closely with Mexico, and we’re doing so.
MS MCKEWAN: Let’s next go to the line of Michael Martina from Reuters.
QUESTION: I wanted to just follow up something that you mentioned there about partnering allies or other countries at least engaging China on this issue. So is it fair to read this coalition – this effort that you’re launching – is in part at least a way to bring pressure on China over fentanyl in a multilateral forum, given its lack of bilateral cooperation?
And a second issue I wanted to ask about was money laundering. There’s a lot of experts on this out there, including some of your former colleagues at State Department, who say the U.S. Government pretty much has just not shown the political will to go after Chinese banks that are facilitating fentanyl-related money laundering. And they would suggest that the problem can’t be solved unless the U.S. Government, State Department, Treasury, et cetera collectively get tough on Chinese banks. So are we going to see the U.S. Government get tough on Chinese banks over this money laundering issue? And if not, why? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON: So – thank you. And I would dispute the premise of the – that part of your question. We are going after the entire supply chain, including financial institutions. The – we’re using our rewards program. Just recently we’ve announced rewards totaling up to $56 million for information or arrest and conviction of 22 Mexican nationals, four PRC nationals, and a Guatemalan national. We are not going to leave any stone unturned to go after – to go after the entire chain here.
But more broadly, but this isn’t about blame and this isn’t about pressure. We are asking countries to join up together to go after these networks that are trafficking the precursors and the drugs. And it is our – it is our belief that eventually all responsible countries will want to be involved in this effort.
MS MCKEWAN: Great. Let’s next go to the line of Willy Lowry from The National.
QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing this. I was wondering if we could just shift focus a little to Captagon in the Middle East and what countries you’ve invited from the region, and kind of what role the drug will play in tomorrow’s discussions and efforts.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON: So Jordan’s been invited; Saudi Arabia’s been invited; Morocco’s been invited. My understanding is all have committed to – sorry – all have committed to participate. What was the second part of your question?
OPERATOR: Give me a moment; I’ll retrieve him here. Mr. Lowry, you’re open again.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Thank you so much. Sorry about that. Yeah, the second part was just kind of what role or kind of what efforts will be made to kind of combat the illegal trade in the region at tomorrow’s session.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON: Well, that’s part of the reason we’re all going to get together. For each country, each country has a different part of this puzzle. Some countries have all of the pieces of the puzzle going on. Part of tomorrow’s plan is to – is to have the different states talk about where they fit in, where they think they can help, what roles they think they can play, and whether or not they can do it in concert with other countries. We believe that by combining our efforts and using – under the three pillars that I mentioned earlier, we can prevent the illicit manufacture and trafficking of synthetic drugs, we can identify emerging drug trends and use patterns, and we can develop global standards for health care responses.
Those are the broad outlines of what we want to try to tackle tomorrow. And then we look forward to hearing from the countries, the different countries, on where they fit in to that.
MS MCKEWAN: Great. Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary Robinson. That’s all the time we have for questions today. As a reminder, this call was on the record and is embargoed until the call’s conclusion, which will be momentarily. Thank you all so much for joining us.
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