Despite new restrictions on fentanyl, China may still be flooding the international market.
Part of the United States’ fentanyl problem historically has been the ease of available supply coming from China. And, although strict measures have been put into place to stop this practice in the past year or so, a recent media inquiry found that the owner of an online pharmacy in Xingtai responded within a minute to a would-be customer asking for the product on WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service. The pharmacy is still operating and marketing itself as a provider of “high purity, real pure” fentanyl to potential customers. “Which products do you want to buy?” a salesperson replied. However, when a follow up message was sent via an American telephone number, the same pharmacy responded, “I don’t sell any more.” The probe shows how easy it might be to still get addictive fentanyl shipped internationally.
“The scale of China’s under-regulated industries allows for minimally trained technicians with access to the proper inputs to follow simple synthesis steps while avoiding oversight,” the authors of a new report on fentanyl by the RAND Corporation wrote. “China’s pharmaceutical and industrial chemical industries are large and beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.”
“It’s just like water: They’re finding the gaps and the cracks,” Bryce Pardo, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation said.
The problem has been so significant, some believe that the shipments made to the U.S. are purposeful with the intention of causing harm. “Fentanyl sourced from China accounted for 97 percent of the drug seized from international mail services by United States law enforcement in both the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Last year, China’s leader Xi Jinping recently promised President Trump he would take steps to stop the flood by officially designating fentanyl as a controlled substance, and many distributors subsequently shut down. However, others claiming to be complying with the new rules are not necessarily doing so. It really “depends on who’s asking.”
“China’s control over fentanyl substances is becoming stricter and stricter,” Yu Haibin, the deputy director of the country’s National Narcotics Control Commission, insisted. And, Tang Jianbin, a lawyer in Beijing agreed the move was a huge step toward limiting addictive fentanyl from hitting the streets, saying, “This legal adjustment is an innovation in our country.”
“While it appears that the direct shipment of fentanyl-related substances from China to the United States has declined in recent months, this is only one of many measures that the United States looks to for indicators of progress,” the customs bureau wrote of the ongoing opioid epidemic. “The most important measure of progress is the reduction of American lives lost to these drugs.”
In China, as in the United States, addictive fentanyl can be legally prescribed and is used as an anesthetic in surgery and for severe pain relief. Until recently, China’s laws surrounding the use of the powerful opioid drug did not cover chemical variants. And, this is why distribution to the U.S. continued to be an issue.
Chinese officials have argued that the U.S. should be looking at other sources of supply that are even more detrimental. Yu, the narcotics agency deputy director, cited statistics from the United States Customs and Border Protection stating, “Of the 536.8 kilograms of fentanyl seized between October 2018 and March 2019, only 5.87 kilograms, or just over 1 percent, was shipped from China.” After reviewing this data, he said, “From these statistics it is clear that China is not the main source of fentanyl substances in the United States.”