Fri, Dec 07, 2018 - Page 11 News List

China’s fentanyl vow not a fix for US crisis: experts

MISALIGNED INTERESTS:While Beijing sets policy, it turns enforcement over to local governments, which are ‘incentivized to export as much product as possible’

AFP, BEIJING

A truce in the US-China trade war includes a pledge by Beijing to tackle another lucrative — and deadly — export: fentanyl, a potent opioid ravaging US communities.

The US has pressed Beijing to do more to crack down on the drug, as smugglers from China are suspected of being the main suppliers of the narcotic, which is 50 times stronger than heroin.

At the G20 summit in Argentina, China agreed to designate any type of fentanyl as a controlled substance, with the US saying that this would expose offenders to the maximum penalty under Chinese law — capital punishment.

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday said the move could be a “game-changer.”

“If China cracks down on this ‘horror drug,’ using the Death Penalty for distributors and pushers, the results will be incredible,” Trump said on Twitter.

However, experts doubt it would make a major difference.

Fentanyl production has become a “very profitable” business for Chinese traffickers, said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

It is going to be tough for the Chinese government to control the business, “especially given the huge demand that we currently have in the United States,” he said.

China is believed to be one of the main manufacturers of synthetic drugs that have been blamed for public health crises in the US, Canada and Australia, among other countries.

Getting the drug is relatively easy: Buyers find fentanyl from suppliers online, pay for it with cryptocurrencies, credit cards or money transfers, and receive their order via international mail services, a US congressional report said.

It has become a booming business for clandestine chemical labs in China, where 1kg of fentanyl can produce 50kg of “high-grade” heroin, turning a less than US$10,000 investment into US$500,000, Vigil said.

Deaths from drug overdose in the US last year surged to nearly 72,000 — far more than traffic accident deaths, gun-related deaths, or suicide, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Fentanyl was linked to the deaths of singers Prince and Tom Petty.

At first glance, China does not seem like an ideal base for manufacturing and shipping fentanyl to the US. Scarred by its own opium crisis in the 19th century, China has a zero-tolerance policy toward illicit drugs.

However, chemical distributors in China have been able to dodge international and domestic law enforcement with fentanyl, which does have legal uses, such as treating extreme pain for cancer patients.

China has previously banned fentanyl variant by variant.

Savvy chemists would simply tweak their chemical formula, creating an analogue or slightly different chemical compound to bypass regulations.

Beijing’s decision to list all fentanyl-like substances could address that issue, but systemic challenges remain.

“It seems to be that China just has a huge chemical and pharmaceutical industry, and they just have too many firms and too few police to manage that industry,” said Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at RAND Corp, a California-based think tank.

In 2015, China had about 400,000 chemical manufacturers and distributors, a US Department of State report said that year.

China also has an unknown number of underground chemical labs that produce synthetic drugs.

In 2015, Chinese authorities destroyed 259 labs and arrested 1,570 suspects, department report said last year.

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