Crypto’s dark role in the US opioid epidemic


Hello and welcome to this week’s version of the FT’s Cryptofinance publication. This week we’re having a look at one other “crypto use case” . . . buying fentanyl.

After final 12 months’s historic market crash and subsequent collapse of many high-profile corporations, the crypto trade is in overdrive to persuade sceptics that there are helpful options to cryptocurrencies that demand mainstream adoption.

Critics of crypto’s use aren’t in need of ammunition, pointing to its hefty carbon footprint, lack of fundamental client safety, company ransomware and the financing of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

This week one other goal emerged. Blockchain analytics agency Elliptic printed a examine linking cryptocurrencies with the unfold of fentanyl, a potent artificial opioid and the main explanation for loss of life for 18- to 45-year-olds in the US.

According to Elliptic, most fentanyl trafficked into the US is manufactured utilizing chemical components imported from Chinese suppliers, and 90 per cent of those suppliers settle for cryptocurrency funds.

Elliptic’s analysis staff obtained provides to provide massive portions of 1 specific chemical ingredient which isn’t used to fabricate every other product, and is a managed substance in most international locations. A “menu” of chemical compounds supplied to the Elliptic staff additionally included components for methamphetamine and amphetamine.

“It’s hard to say how important crypto is to this type of activity but the fact that such a large proportion of these suppliers accept crypto suggests to me there is a significant demand to pay in crypto for these types of chemicals,” Tom Robinson, Elliptic’s chief scientist and co-founder, informed me over the cellphone.

The fentanyl epidemic plaguing the US is difficult to overstate. The illicit drug has changed legally prescribed painkillers as the predominant explanation for overdose in the nation, and the loss of life fee is equal to 1 American overdosing each 5 minutes.

Alongside Covid-19, the fentanyl epidemic has pushed US life expectancy all the way down to 76.4 years, a low not seen for the previous 25 years.

Per Elliptic, the cryptocurrency wallets utilized by these corporations have obtained a complete sum of greater than $27mn, sufficient to buy components that would produce fentanyl capsules with a road worth of roughly $54bn.

“The issue here is that a relatively small amount of cryptocurrency can purchase enough chemicals to produce vast amounts of fentanyl, and we know that fentanyl is killing millions of people . . . so the impact that crypto is potentially having here is extreme,” he added.

Moreover, the variety of funds despatched to Chinese suppliers of components used to make fentanyl is skyrocketing. According to Elliptic, only one fee utilizing crypto was made for these merchandise in January 2021. By final month, the determine was greater than 600.

Robinson informed me he believed crypto was an “inherently neutral technology”, and that the similar traits that made it susceptible to illicit use additionally made it a terrific device for cross-border funds. “Extremely powerful technologies can be used for good and bad, that’s just the nature of them.”

But it provides one other dynamic to America’s more and more sophisticated relationship with crypto. On the one hand, markets regulators, the Department of Justice and the Treasury try to stamp out illicit crypto exercise the place they’ll: enforcement, legal expenses and sanctions.

Yet there are additionally loads of crypto supporters in Washington, together with Republican legislators Tom Emmer, Cynthia Lummis and Patrick McHenry. Democrats resembling Maxine Waters, a member of the US House monetary companies committee, are much less satisfied.

Capitol Hill is a deeply divided place, as the protracted talks over the US debt ceiling have highlighted. It stays to be seen whether or not crypto’s hyperlink to America’s lethal opioid epidemic will change any minds.

What are your ideas on the role of cryptocurrencies in the fentanyl epidemic? As all the time please share your ideas with me by way of e-mail at

Weekly highlights

  • The run of unhealthy crypto information continues: UK losses to crypto fraud elevated by greater than 40 per cent in the previous 12 months and surpassed £300mn for the first time in historical past, in line with Britain’s fraud reporting company Action Fraud. My colleague Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan has the story right here.

  • Iosco, the umbrella group for world markets regulators, pushed nationwide regulators to interrupt up crypto corporations intertwined with intractable conflicts of curiosity. Following the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX and criticisms over the transparency of Binance’s company construction, Iosco has pushed crypto conflicts of curiosity into the highlight. My story with Laura Noonan right here.

  • Terraform Labs co-founder and disgraced former crypto kingpin Do Kwon had his bail revoked in Montenegro. He was arrested earlier this 12 months after the $40bn implosion of the terraUSD and luna tokens a 12 months in the past set off a world manhunt. He was arrested attempting to go away Montenegro on a false passport.

  • Another regulatory replace: the European Systemic Risk Board stated in a report that regulators in the EU ought to introduce limits on leveraged bets throughout crypto markets in order to restrict dangers posed to monetary stability in the broader financial system. The ESRB additionally stated the creation and design of good contracts — a foundational know-how in decentralised finance — needs to be overseen by regulators.

  • Following in the footsteps of El Salvador, Bhutan — the place the phrase “gross national happiness” was first coined to rival gross home product — is investing in bitcoin mining. Druk Holding & Investments, the state-owned industrial holding firm, will begin pitching to traders to lift as much as half a billion {dollars} for a crypto mining enterprise. My colleague Benjamin Parkin in New Delhi has the story right here.

Soundbite of the week: DeSantis backs bitcoin

Ron DeSantis, controversial governor of Florida and new presidential candidate, is on staff bitcoin.

During a Twitter Spaces session with Elon Musk this week (when it labored) the Republican many take into account the greatest rival to Donald Trump, criticised the “current regime” for its stance on bitcoin.

“The current regime clearly has it out for bitcoin . . . and if it continues for another four years, they’ll probably end up killing it.”

Data mining: TUSD enters the massive leagues

The stablecoin market in 2023 has been dominated by two corporations, Tether and Circle, which have had very totally different fortunes.

Tether — the offshore, BVI-registered firm which points an eponymous token with roughly $80bn in circulating worth — has gripped the stablecoin market with roughly 60 per cent of market share.

Circle, the US firm with a number of state licences which points the USDC token, has been extra preoccupied with its token briefly de-pegging from the greenback and . . .*checks notes*: the banking trade destabilising crypto markets.

But there could also be a brand new contender, TUSD, a stablecoin that first got here to market in 2018. Very little is understood about it. It was launched by an organization known as TrustToken, which introduced in 2020 the possession of the stablecoin will probably be shifting to an “Asia-based consortium.” TrustToken was rebranded as Archblock final September.

TUSD has a market cap of roughly $2bn, so small in contrast with Tether’s $83bn, however was just lately boosted by Binance’s resolution to incorporate it in a zero-fee buying and selling supply to clients.

As of May 23, TUSD turned the second-largest stablecoin by every day buying and selling quantity, outstripping Circle’s USDC, which has spent the previous few months ceding floor to opponents.

Column chart of TUSD trading volume on centralised exchanges ($bn) showing TUSD trading volume has skyrocketed in recent months, overtaking Circle's USDC

Cryptofinance is edited by Philip Stafford. Please ship any ideas and suggestions to

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