Health

U.S. Commission Slams China for Slow Response to Block Illegal Synthetic Opioids

A new U.S. government report comes on strong against China for taking too long to do something about the illegal production and shipment of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids into North America.

The flakes seen in the white circle represent the incredibly small amount of fentanyl that is required for a lethal dose. The small quantity needed to kill, along with the drug's ready availability and low cost throughout North America, are part of why overdose rates from the drug have risen so dramatically in the last 15 years. (Photo: U.S. General Accounting Office)

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids continue to be produced in China in large quantities – and then shipped to both Canada and the United States – with the Chinese government doing very little to stop them.

So says a new report entitled “Fentanyl Flows From China: An Update since 2017”. It was prepared by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on behalf of the U.S. Congress, and published on November 26.

As has been reported previously in Trillions (see “Fentanyl: The Drug of Pain” and “One in Five Young Adult Deaths from Opioids in U.S.”), opioid addiction and overdose deaths have risen to epidemic proportions in both the United States and Canada. The number one ‘drug of choice’ in those deaths is the synthetic drug fentanyl, along with fentanyl-like variants.

U.S. overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, 1999-2016. (Source of data: National Center of Health Statistics) Photo: U.S. General Accounting Office Photo: U.S. General Accounting Office

A separate report from the U.S. government, “Illicit Opioids”, published on March 29, 2018, describes the man-made fentanyl opioids as 100 times stronger than morphine. According to that report, it was accountable for over 19,000 of the approximately 64,000 total opioid overdose deaths as of 2016. That number spiked even higher in 2017 to an estimated 29,500 overdose deaths.

As noted by the new report, China “remains the largest source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances”. The drugs are produced in China, then are shipped to Canada, the United States, or Mexico as the primary shipping locations. They are of course shipped in without markings identifying the materials as fentanyl or anything like it. In the U.S., if a shipping source is known the materials can be examined by customs on entry into the country. In Canada, local regulations can block even that from happening, provided the shipments are small. In both cases, with the amount of fentanyl needed to addict and possibly kill being so small, as shown in the photo at the beginning of this article, it is easy to hide drugs of significant  cash value inside other items or even in packing materials for something else entirely.

Some fraction of these shipments are used either as is or cut with other materials within the countries they are originally shipped to. Some fraction of the drugs shipped either to Mexico or Canada are used locally, with a major percentage of what goes to those countries eventually making it into the U.S.

China has no major drug problem with fentanyl, unlike both Canada and the United States.

Despite ongoing discussions with China on the subject, the new report says, “there has been no substantive curtailment of fentanyl flows from China to the United States”. It blames the problem “in large part…due to weak regulations governing pharmaceutical and chemical production in China”.

Those weak regulations lay with a fundamental aspect of the way Beijing classifies controlled substances such as fentanyl. The regulatory problem starts in that China is highly specific about how it identifies drugs for the purpose of classification. That means a slight variant of an existing dangerous drug, however minor and however little difference that variation might mean to the way the new chemical or pharmaceutical works, can take a long time to be classified as a controlled substance. These chemical variants – called “analogues” – multiply far too fast for China’s archaic and bureaucratic systems to restrict the synthetic variants of fentanyl from circulation.

While China supposedly is taking the problem seriously and is even cooperating to some extent with U.S. legal authorities, one step which has been recommended but that they so far have not taken is to go after the fentanyl and fentanyl variant manufacturers themselves. They also seem to be doing almost nothing to speed the regulatory process for blocking new substances or consider fundamental changes in their laws to allow more rapid seizure of drugs which fit in the fentanyl variant category but are clearly being made with only illegal narcotic sales as the goal.

According to the new report, China also “implemented several new chemical controls since February 2017, including controlling some known fentanyl analogues”.  Those controls involve what is called China “scheduling” (the listing of drugs as controlled substances):

  • “In March 2017, …on four fentanyl-class substances: carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, valeryl fentanyl, and acryl fentanyl”
  • “In July 2017, … [on] U-47700, a powerful synthetic opioid (though not a fentanyl-class substance)
  • “In February 2018, … on two popular fentanyl precursor chemicals, NPP and 4ANPP”
  • “In August 2018, China controlled an additional 32 NPS [an acronym for ‘new psychoactive substances’], including two fentanyl substances.”

The problem is that with so many fentanyl variants being created so fast, the report says, “these scheduling actions have little long-term impact on reducing NPS flow into the United States”.  Even China’s own Yu Haibin, a division director at the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Narcotics Control Bureau, told reporters in an interview for the Globe and Mail in 2017 that Chinese regulators are scrambling just to keep pace with the illegal production and shipping operations of fentanyl and fentanyl equivalents. He said that, “My feeling it that it’s just like a race and I will never catch up with the criminals.”

Until China takes control of its own synthetic opioid production and export problems in a new way, the overdose numbers cited in this new report will grow only higher in the years to come. It also does not help that China and the United States are embroiled in a massive trade war which makes discussion of just about anything else close to impossible right now.