Leveraging Artificial Intelligence to Address the U.S. Opioid Crisis

February 2022

The U.S. has faced enormous challenges over the last several decades involving illegal drugs. As the wealthiest country in the world, the United States is the transnational drug dealer’s prime market, and the nation has suffered from this distinction. Nearly 100,000 people die from drug overdoses in the U.S. per year, with over 70% of those deaths from opioid overdoses. In some areas opioid overdoses are responsible for more deaths than homicides, or even car accidents.  Rates of lethal overdose have been rising each year by approximately 25% or more, and the synthetic opioid fentanyl has been identified as the most lethal illegal drug in America. Fentanyl deaths are rising as much as 84% each year in some U.S. counties, with no indication that they will decline.

The makers and distributors of opioids are intelligent, resourceful, and highly motivated to continue and escalate their operations using the latest technology and global connections. For years, China was known to be the major producer of fentanyl, but Mexican drug cartels have swiftly taken action to take advantage of the demand for synthetic opiates in the U.S. and other countries. Each year the manufacturers and dealers refine their methods to be more efficient, scalable, profitable, and untraceable, incorporating improved manufacturing techniques, encrypted communications, and layered networks.

This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. The same technologies that enable criminals to coordinate their operations efficiently and secretly can be accessed with AI to investigate and disrupt their activities. The massive global drug networks that have been responsible for bringing deadly opioids to the United States invariably leave a digital trail as they conduct communications, financial transactions, international travel, and supply chain operations. The sheer volume of data related to these activities is beyond the capabilities of even the largest team of expertly trained analysts. However, the application of AI is a significant force multiplier, processing, analyzing, and creating reports based upon terabytes of data from the Deep Web and Dark Web, financial transactions, law enforcement agencies, judicial and penal processes, manufacturing and supply chain data, healthcare records, community web sources, and mainstream social media platforms.

Since 80% of opioid addicts began their addictions through prescribed opiates, many AI investigation processes focus on pharmaceutical opiates with the intention of preventing the addictions that so often escalate to the use of heroin and fentanyl. These AI investigations collect and examine data related to the manufacturers, distributors, and prescribers of opiates, identifying noteworthy patterns and connections that could indicate geographical hotspots of opioid use, physicians who are prescribing large quantities of opiates, drug stores that are dispensing high levels of opioid products, and healthcare systems that have high levels of opioid-related hospitalizations and recovery programs. The goal of these operations is to protect communities from harmful influences and to assist the populations in overcoming patterns of addiction.

For the investigation of fentanyl production and distribution, AI can be applied to collect and analyze information about companies that manufacture the components of fentanyl, their output and shipping destinations.  All-source data, including proprietary and law enforcement information, can be fused and analyzed for pattern recognition and AI-derived insights that simply are not possible to realize from “manual” analysis.  It can identify markers based on previous research to flag potential smuggling and transportation routes and distribution centers, based on a number of types of public records and data provided by cooperating agencies. Criminal organizations conduct much of their communications and planning through the Dark Web and Deep Web, which is why AI systems are created to operate in over 100 languages, combing through Dark Web/Deep Web and mainstream platforms to identify linguistic references and transactions involving opioid sales and use. These systems conduct round-the-clock, real-time automated analysis and offer written and visual reports that dramatically boost the efficiency and accuracy of investigations.  Leveraging and deploying AI in the fight against opioid trafficking is critical for success to combat this scourge and save lives.

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