Fentanyl trafficking, the cause of new China-US trade war

On August 2, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new round of tariffs on Chinese imports.

In a tweet, he blamed China for failing to stop fentanyl trafficking to the U.S., which he said was responsible for thousands of deaths due to drug overdose.

Fentanyl and its chemical analogs are at the heart of an overdose epidemic in the U.S.

Often used as painkillers, fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin. Though usually prescribed in small doses to reduce pain for patients suffering from terminal cancer, it’s sometimes mixed with heroin and cocaine and sold on the black market.

According to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl-related fatalities soared to a record high in 2017. Overdose death rates linked to synthetic opioids, likely from illicitly manufactured fentanyl, increased by more than 45 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“It is very hard to regulate fentanyl since they are normally produced in low weight, small doses and distributed widely,” said Li Zheng, assistant researcher at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, in an interview with CGTN. “They are drugs synthesized in labs entirely from chemicals, and thus it is hard to gauge their total amount in the market.”

Fentanyl 2.jpg

The overdose epidemic was attributed by the U.S. to an unlikely target – exports from China. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), cheap fentanyl manufactured by Chinese labs was sold online and was mailed to the U.S. It said that some Mexican traffickers also ordered fentanyl online from China and then smuggled it across the border.

But China hardly turned a blind eye to the tragedies on U.S. soil. President Trump’s statement came months after China pledged to ramp up efforts on stopping drug trafficking to the U.S. In April this year, China announced that all chemical analogues of fentanyl would be added to the list of narcotics subject to state control.

“China has done all that it can to stop the overflow of fentanyl to the U.S., but since drug trafficking is a hugely profitable business, even if government and law enforcement agencies have tried all means, it takes time to solve the problem,” Li told CGTN.

Previously, China listed variants of fentanyl and its precursors as a controlled substance, but manufacturers can find a way to circumvent the policy by changing the chemical makeup of the substance, thus creating new variations.

Under the new policy that took effect starting May 1, all new fentanyl-related substances, including fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, were automatically categorized as a controlled substance, the production and distribution of which are subject to strict regulation.

“It would be impossible to change the molecular structure of fentanyl so as to evade the regulation,” Li added.

After President Trump’s tweet that blamed China as the origin of the overdose crisis, Liu Yuejin, Vice Commissioner of the National Narcotics Control Commission, said in an interview with CCTV that the statement was unacceptable. He said China had stringent control over fentanyl, for example, UN conventions listed 21 fentanyl variants as a controlled substance, while China listed 25.

Instead of attributing the problem to China, the U.S.’ long tradition of abusing prescription medicine is to blame for the overdose crisis, he said at a press conference in April.

“It all started with the over-prescription of medication,” Li noted. Similar painkillers or anesthetics, that have high potential of abuse and addiction, also lead to drug overdose, But since fentanyl is more toxic, its impact is more clearly felt.

Fentanyl presents new challenges to U.S. law enforcement agencies, he added. In the past, the U.S. was more worried about drugs being smuggled across the border from Mexico. But now, fentanyl, which can be shipped via mail and express consignment, is harder to detect.

Before President Trump’s latest change-of-heart on the issue of fentanyl, Chinese and U.S. law enforcement agencies have collaborated closely on stopping fentanyl trafficking, by sharing intelligence, transferring evidence and offering technical assistance.

In August 2018, China and the U.S. worked together to crack down on a drug trafficking network that illicitly exported fentanyl from China to the U.S. In 2017, the DEA opened an office in Guangzhou, a sign of improving cooperation to crack down on the illicit drug trade.

But the positive trend of bilateral collaboration might be in peril as the issue of fentanyl becomes politicized, becoming entangled in the trade war discussion. Cutting down domestic demand for the drug and increasing law enforcement are instead better solutions to the scourge that takes thousands of lives.

“We need to increase deterrence for fentanyl trafficking, through increasing collaboration on law enforcement and sharing technical know-now,” Li cautioned.