Robert Leventhal: While emphasising synthetic drugs, plant-based drugs should not be overlooked

Robert Leventhal - synthetic drugs
Robert Leventhal Photo: Chandra Bahadur Ale

Synthetic drugs have been making a significant impact globally, and Nepal is no exception.

In July, Nepal faced its most substantial seizure of the illicit drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in recent history. A special operation carried out by the Narcotics Control Bureau resulted in the arrest of five individuals found in possession of 10,130 pieces of LSD.

Although this incident represents a major case in recent years, the widespread prevalence of synthetic drugs in Nepal continues to present a formidable challenge for the Nepal Police and relevant authorities.

Robert Leventhal, Chief of Division of Global Policy and Programs Officer of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. State Departments has been working with synthetic drugs-related cases for years.

Leventhal was recently in Kathmandu where he and his team engaged in discussions with officials at the National Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal Police and other bodies to understand their perspectives on challenges in the world of criminal justice and the importance of international cooperation.

In a conversation with Onlinekhabar, Leventhal talked about the challenges, potential solutions, and various facets of preventing narcotics, particularly addressing the surge of synthetic drugs in today’s day and age. He further delved into the proactive measures that countries, including Nepal, can undertake to mitigate the proliferation of these drugs in the market.


Is this your first visit to Nepal? 

Yes, it is my first visit to Nepal. It has been a wonderful experience. I’ve had meetings with government officials and non-governmental organisations with whom we closely collaborate. Additionally, I had a very useful and inspiring visit to Chitwan National Park, where we have provided support through the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC).

Was there any special purpose for your visit?

In my role overseeing and managing capacity-building and cooperation programs with numerous countries, Nepal is among them. During my visits to various locations, including Nepal, I engaged in discussions with officials to understand their perspectives on challenges within the realm of criminal justice and the importance of international cooperation.

Simultaneously, I engaged with partners actively involved in project implementation. An example of such a collaborator is the National Trust for Nature Conservation.

What are the new challenges the world faces when it comes to narcotics?

I’m not an expert in the criminal justice system of Nepal. But, I think that the US and many other countries are seeing new challenges when it comes to narcotics. The challenges posed by synthetic drugs have become a headache in many countries across the globe.

That being said, synthetic drugs are not a novel phenomenon for us. They have been in existence for years, but over time, their diversity has increased. Presently, we are witnessing the emergence of synthetic drugs that are more potent and deadlier than ever before.

For instance in the USA; we had over 106,000 deaths from overdose and two-thirds of those were due to the use of synthetic drugs.

Synthetic drugs can be manufactured easily in many places and especially the ones that are very potent can be moved across borders very easily.

I’d like to share a recent initiative undertaken in Nepal. We actively participated in a global coalition formed to address the escalating threat of synthetic drugs. The initiative commenced in July with a virtual ministerial-level meeting, bringing together over 100 countries and international organisations.

Nepal, among others, acknowledged the widespread presence of synthetic drugs on a global scale. Of particular concern is the emergence of fentanyl, previously a significant issue in the United States, now making its presence known in various countries worldwide.

We have pinpointed three primary areas for future endeavours across all countries: addressing the manufacturing and trafficking of synthetic drugs, enhancing data and information-sharing mechanisms, and addressing early warning and public health concerns.

Our approach considers this issue as both a security and criminal justice challenge, emphasising awareness-raising, prevention, and efforts related to treatment and recovery. This comprehensive strategy encompasses both the enforcement aspects of criminal justice and security, as well as a public health perspective.

Now, we are initiating concrete and targeted working group discussions with diplomats. Our goal is to facilitate countries learning from each other and taking joint domestic actions.

Robert Leventhal Photo: Chandra Bahadur Ale
Robert Leventhal Photo: Chandra Bahadur Ale

After a recent operation conducted by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), the police said that five international drug trafficking groups were found to be importing heroin into Nepal. Do such incidents indicate that Nepal is becoming an easy route for international drug traffickers?

It’s difficult for me to address the situation in Nepal. I will say that the drug traffickers are relentless. They are unfortunately very smart. They look for vulnerabilities in our systems. 

They want to make products and trade them and make money.  It’s important for our law enforcement officials and even our public health officials to share information domestically and internationally. This should be done because the roots and methods of criminal organisations continue to shift as they seek new opportunities. This is one of the key areas of emphasis I mentioned for the global coalition.

It also reminds us that we need to promote international cooperation because in many or perhaps most cases drugs are moving across borders. They may be manufactured in one place while the precursor chemicals may come from another place. Later their shipments are done from one country to another. Therefore,  an international framework to share information is really important in the new paradigms of drug trafficking.

Recently, the NCB in Nepal seized drugs that passed airport security checks and originated from various countries. Is there a concern with airport security?

Again, I don’t know enough to comment about Nepal’s airport security. However, I will say that border control over trade and commerce is a key issue for any country. 

I happened to be at John F Kennedy Airport about a month ago, working with our Customs and Border Protection Agency.  At that time I learnt that commercial shipping is the most risky thing for any country. So it is important for any country to make their customs and border security strong. 

Cooperation between the customs and border services and law enforcement is important as well. It is also important to enhance the skills of those working in customs and border services. Among them, those working to prevent narcotics should get additional priority. When it comes to narcotics It is also very important to cooperate with the private sector, because in recent times the trade of narcotics is done through online platforms. 

As you have already said drugs are bought online, and it seems that the dark web is used in drug smuggling in many countries. So, is it possible that Nepali drug smugglers are also using this medium? 

It is not only the dark web, the clear web is also being rapidly used for the drug trade. Similarly, the trade of cryptocurrency is also being carried out from such platforms. The dark web is safe to use as it does not reveal the identity of the buyer and seller.  That is why it is used for illegal work. The same thing happens on the clear web. These digital platforms have posed challenges to law enforcers. It’s difficult for the law enforcement authorities to monitor these platforms. However, this is one major area where the law enforcement authorities should work significantly.

The police should have proper knowledge about forensic investigation. For this as well there should be international cooperation. It is not just Nepal and the USA, the entire world is going through challenges posed by the dark web and the clear web. 

So what do you think, what are the things that Nepal needs to improve?

I just do not want to talk about Nepal, but all the countries should make wise decisions legally and institutionalise the policy. 

The U.S. is urging all countries to monitor the evolving patterns of drug trafficking. Similarly, while emphasising synthetic drugs, they are also encouraging attention to plant-based drugs. In the last 10 years, over 100 variants have been reported in the United Nations. 

Robert Leventhal Photo: Chandra Bahadur Ale
Robert Leventhal Photo: Chandra Bahadur Ale

As you mentioned there are changes in modes of drug smuggling. So do you think a country like Nepal should make some changes in terms of policies too? If yes, then what kind of policies should countries like Nepal need to adopt?

Countries with widespread narcotics use should prioritise public health. In the US, our president has given precedence to public health, emphasising both public awareness and a focus on treatment.

Every country should be aware of their status. Afterwards, the plans and policies should be made according to the data.  

Narcotics are not just connected to a single country. All the countries need to share information and work jointly for the prevention of narcotics. We have been assisting various countries in improving their skills to prevent the trade of narcotics. Through these training sessions, we also gain insights into the various practices employed by other countries to combat narcotics.

So, what are your suggestions for Nepali law enforcers, especially for the NCB?

There should be an environment where narcotics are completely prevented. If they are being traded, they should be confiscated, and investigations should trace the origin and destination of these drugs. 

Police should coordinate with Interpol, seeking training and assistance in reaching out to various countries. I encourage police forces in all countries to take advantage of these networks. 

In 2022, a bill was introduced in the parliament to legalize marijuana claiming it would create employment opportunities and help strengthen the economy. What is your opinion on this?

Any country should formulate policies in accordance with its social structure; this is a political and public health issue.

From the perspective of the United States, we, like many other countries, are bound by agreements established in international conventions and treaties. Multiple treaties reflect our commitments.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in Vienna, established through agreements among various countries, maintains information on the implementation of international treaties and agreements.

Its latest reports express concern about countries attempting to legalise marijuana. We urge everyone to respect the commitments made at the international level.

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Pokharel is an Onlinekhabar correspondent covering security and crime.

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