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$1M NSF Grant to Help Researchers Unravel Illegal Opioid Market Operations

Study Aimed at Fentanyl and Other Drugs Could Also Shed Light on Human Smuggling, Wildlife Poaching

By School of Public Policy Staff

drug needle on beach

A discarded drug needle left in a public place by a user underscores the need for greater understanding of illegal drug markets and supply lines that UMD researchers are pursuing with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Photo by Adobe Stock

A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will fund a University of Maryland researcher’s deep dive into the mechanics of the illegal opioid supply networks that have carved a trail of death and devastation across the country.

The scientific objective of the four-year study is to refine theories that explain illegal markets supplied by illegal networks, said Distinguished University Professor Peter Reuter of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“The practical objective is to save lives by improving understanding of the dynamics of illegally supplied synthetic opioids and identify opportunities for disruption,” said Reuter, co-principal investigator for the project.

Opioid pain relief drugs are responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in the U.S., with the most dangerous being fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Since 2014—widely considered the beginning of the “fentanyl crisis,” when illegal imports of the narcotic skyrocketed—the drug has wreaked havoc, with more than 70,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S. in 2021 alone.

Overdose rates are strikingly uneven across the country. In 2019, Ohio and West Virginia saw overdose rates of more than 35 per 100,000 residents, Reuter said, while in stark contrast, West Coast rates were less than 10 per 100,000. Part of the research will examine why heroin dealers have taken up this synthetic drug only in some states, and why fentanyl is not become available in other rich countries with large heroin markets.

“The key here is exactly in the term ‘markets,’” said Reuter. “The fentanyl crisis is driven by dealers, though it is the users who suffer the consequences. There was no new demand for fentanyl; dealers found that they could substitute cheap fentanyl for expensive heroin and, in some markets, they did so.”

Reuter said the aim of the project is to develop, through empirical study and new theoretical frameworks, a better understanding of the factors that drive the spread of specific drugs. It will also examine other illegal markets to see whether more insights can be gained from comparisons.

The Drug Policy Research Center (DPRC) at the RAND Corporation will administer the project. Reuter founded the center in 1989 to help public officials and community leaders develop a firm foundation for policymakers to address drug problems and related concerns.

RAND Senior Policy Researcher Beau Kilmer, the McCauley Chair in Drug Policy Innovation and co-director of the DPRC, is the primary project investigator. Along with Reuter, the other co-PI is Jonathan Caulkins, the H. Guyford Stever University Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is literally the first grant from NSF, the lead federal agency for theoretical research, aimed at understanding how illegal markets operate,” Reuter said. “It is an opportunity to fill a major gap not just for controlling drug problems but for other markets like those for protected species and human smuggling.”



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