Synthetic drugs present a unique challenge to the international drug control aim to preserve the health of the global community. Unlike the production of plant-derived drugs such as cocaine and heroin, which is geographically constrained, synthetic drug manufacture can occur anywhere depending on human creativity and a few key chemicals. This versatility makes the manufacture of synthetic drugs extremely mobile and any country can be a potential source. Yet this is not a totally new phenomenon. For over a century, international drug control has had to contend with waves of emergence of synthetic drugs: derivatives of morphine in the 1920s, fentanyl analogues in the 1980s and amphetamine-type stimulants in the 1990s. The 2010s marked a defining period for synthetic drugs with the unprecedented emergence of hundreds of substances which mimic the effects of drugs hazardous to human health and therefore under international control. Known as ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPS), by December 2020 over 1,000 of these had been reported in 120 countries and territories worldwide. For unprepared societies, the effects of these cyclical surges in synthetic drugs have had severe consequences, but none has been as distressing as the ongoing synthetic opioids crisis affecting mainly North America with fentanyl and its analogues, and parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East with tramadol.

The dynamic nature of synthetic drug markets has by necessity required equally adaptable solutions and continuous refinements of strategies. The establishment of the Global SMART Programme in 2009 as a strategic response to the amphetamine-type stimulants problem identified in the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action; the development of the first global forensic Early Warning Advisory on New Psychoactive Substances to operationalize the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session ideal of prioritizing the most harmful, persistent and prevalent substances for international action; and the establishment of the UNODC Opioid Strategy in 2018 to support countries in addressing the synthetic opioids crisis are all clear examples of the nimbleness with which UNODC has responded to the ever-changing and complex synthetic drugs market.

Launched on World Drug Day in June 2018, the fivepillar UNODC Opioid Strategy integrates through strong inter-agency cooperation the unique expertise housed within the Office with complementary specialized knowledge across the United Nations system. Its operational theme of Predict, Protect and Prevent leverages a robust scientific culture to generate the evidence-base for multilateral decision-making, such as the international scheduling of substances, through use of the best available scientific data and timely early warning analyses. Several science-driven multilateral actions over the past few years related to some of the most harmful substances ever known to humankind, including several fentanyl-analogues, illustrate some of the many successes of the Strategy. Within the framework of the Opioid Strategy, UNODC continues to deploy its vast law-enforcement programming assets to offer a coordinated response to air, land and sea container and parcel trafficking in priority regions and countries as well as the online sale of these harmful substances.