TIPP Insights: China’s hands in the fentanyl epidemic

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It is widely known that most fentanyl and precursor ingredients used to make the opioid are manufactured in China. These substances are then shipped to Mexico, where ruthless drug cartels either assemble the drugs or transport them into the United States.

Fentanyl is a synthetic drug that is approved for pain treatment. It is widely abused and mixed with other recreational drugs, making them lethal. The drug is extremely potent; just two grams can kill a person. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this contraband drug has killed more than 64,000 Americans from April 2020-April 2021. That number represents a 15% increase from the estimated number of overdose deaths from the previous year. Fentanyl overdoses are now the number one cause of death among Americans aged 18-45.

Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported a 1066% increase in fentanyl seizures at the eight south Texas ports of entry in the past year. Recently, federal agents seized 76 kilograms of fentanyl, including 115,500 fentanyl-laced pills, and nine kilos of methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana from a drug trafficking network in Ohio.

Fentanyl is often sold as pills and is easily disguised as a pharmaceutical drug, making it easy and hassle-free for the drug cartels to transport and distribute the opioid across the border. Besides, the profit margin on fentanyl is far higher than on other recreational drugs.

As deaths from drug overdoses exceeded 100,000 for the first time in a single calendar year, calls for the Chinese government to step up and take strict actions to stem the flow of the killer drug are gaining momentum. The DEA administrator Anne Milgram has stated, “We need to be able to track every shipment of chemicals that’s coming out of those Chinese chemical companies and coming to Mexico.”

As the world’s largest producer of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, China is uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in the war on drugs. It is estimated that there are anywhere between 160,000 and 400,000 chemical manufacturers and distributors in China. Many of these are clandestine operations that function without the necessary licenses and government approvals. Furthermore, it is believed that most of these units are capable of manufacturing fentanyl and evading the authorities.

When confronted with the issue, Beijing initially stuck to its usual MO — shirking the blame. But constant diplomatic pressure had borne some fruit. In 2018, two key fentanyl precursors were brought under the controlled regulatory regime. In May 2019, the entire class of fentanyl-type drugs was brought under production controls and anti-trafficking measures.

Though this is far from enough, placing the substances on a regulated list significantly reduced the export of finished fentanyl. It also markedly brought down direct selling to Americans. But, Chinese middlemen continue to export precursor chemicals to Mexican drug cartels.

Life-threatening drugs, like fentanyl, have unfortunately become a political tool in the hands of Beijing. Unhappy with U.S. allegations of genocide against Muslim Uyghurs in the country’s Xinjiang province, Chinese officials are now willing to do little to combat the problem. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, blatantly stated that sanctioning Chinese entities for human rights abuses, “will only disrupt the law enforcement cooperation on combating narcotics between China and the U.S.” True to his words, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported a marked drop in cooperation on bilateral anti-synthetic opioid operations and inspections.

It is widely held that international cooperation and enforcement policies can significantly curb the flow of illicit drugs. While it is true that it is impossible to stem the flow of narcotics entirely and restrict the trade of non-scheduled substances, which may be used to produce illicit opioids, much can be done to bring about a significant impact.

For this, China should improve its shipping practices and inspections and discourage deliberate mislabelling of exported substances. Regular reviews of controlled substance manufacturers and a database open to buyers will go a long way in building trust. Beijing should also crack down on the advertising of these substances, especially those that explicitly claim such as will “clear customs in Mexico.”

It is unfathomable that the Communist regime that controls almost every aspect of civil life and industry is unwilling to regulate the deadly menace. The government’s apathy to the illegal drug manufacture and trade conducted from within the mainland is intriguing. It will not be farfetched to wonder if Beijing is turning a blind eye in a nefarious attempt to imperil other societies, especially the U.S., as long as it does not become a domestic problem. While some are terming this a “reverse opium war,” one cannot ignore the scale and depth of the problem.

TIPP Poll: Fentanyl



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