Fentanyl and fentanyl precursors in the USA and Canada are sourced via online transactions with producers in China either directly or via traffickers in Mexico. Due to the volume and variety of consumer goods exported from China, universal screening of either packages or financial transactions based on country of origin is unlikely to be productive. Targeting specific actors may be of short-lived utility, as chemical companies that produce fentanyl and its analogues rapidly change company names and tweak opioid molecules to avoid penalties. Up-to-date knowledge of how labs that produce fentanyl, its precursors, and novel psychoactive substances sell their wares is key to enacting any kind of strategy that will not rapidly become obsolete. A major challenge inherent in detecting fentanyl-related financial transactions is that even when such transactions raise flags, they do not obviously differ from other, potentially lower enforcement priority money-laundering activities. Furthermore, fentanyl, fentanyl precursors, and novel synthetic opioids are often purchased in small quantities which are easily hidden inside other consumer goods – or in small transactions – that may escape notice.
Governments should incentivize technical solutions to these detection and interdiction challenges. One area where prizes have been used to drive innovation is fentanyl detection in mail, where the 2019 Opioid Detection Challenge awarded US$1.5 million in prizes across eight teams. The winning team developed a 3D computerized tomography scanning system with automated detection algorithms, similar to that used in airport baggage scanning. The runners up developed a quadrupole resonance technology that uses radio-frequency signals to search for specific materials, triggering an alarm when an illicit substance is detected. Larger prizes and efforts to pilot and scale up potential solutions deserve public investment.