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Busting drugs with China

China promises to combat opioid drug sales to the United States

President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping (at left) during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Busting drugs with China
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During President Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit last Saturday, the two leaders agreed to curb the flow of the synthetic opioid fentanyl to the United States.

A White House announcement said Xi agreed to label fentanyl a controlled substance so that sellers of the drug would be “subject to China’s maximum penalty under the law,” which is the death penalty. The Trump administration called the move a “wonderful humanitarian gesture”: Opioid overdoses, often involving fentanyl, led to more than 70,000 American deaths in 2017.

Fentanyl in powder form

Fentanyl in powder form DEA.GOV

But fentanyl trade in China is difficult to regulate. Chinese websites advertise fentanyl to American clients, who have it shipped to their mailing addresses. Just a small amount of fentanyl can be deadly: According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 1 kilogram of fentanyl purchased for $3,000 to $5,000 in China could potentially kill 500,000 people. An opioid pain reliever often used by cancer patients, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Drug dealers also sell fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills or fentanyl mixed with heroin, leading to overdoses.

Fentanyl in powder form

Fentanyl in powder form DEA.GOV

In China, fentanyl production is difficult to control because of China’s lax regulation of chemical companies. Fentanyl producers label their products as industrial rather than pharmaceutical because the latter require even less regulation, according to The New York Times.

Another problem is that even though China has banned 23 fentanyl-type drugs, drugmakers can easily produce derivatives of fentanyl that are not yet banned. In 2016 alone, drug producers created 66 derivatives by changing the drug’s chemical structure. Police can only arrest suspects if they are found with the drugs on the list, and in the window of time that it takes to create new laws, overseas clients can buy up the new drug.

“Such substances, or lab-produced narcotic drugs, were created to bypass the list,” Bao Han, an assistant professor and narcotics expert at People’s Public Security University of China, told the South China Morning Post. “Whatever went on the [banned] list, they could produce another that was not covered by it.”

Fentanyl in powder form

Fentanyl in powder form DEA.GOV

In late November, 21 people pleaded guilty in Xingtai, China, for dealing in illegal narcotics including fentanyl, alprazolam (a tranquilizer), and cathinone (a stimulant). They advertised the drugs online and shipped them by courier or post to customers in countries like the United States and Canada, according to the Post.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials tipped off China’s narcotics division about the Xingtai gang in August last year. After three months, Chinese police caught 21 people. It was the first time the United States and China had worked together on a fentanyl case.

Worse than fiction:

China has ordered literature websites to block political fiction and writings containing vulgar content or ideas that contradict core socialist values. Online fiction portals subsequently engaged in 10 days of self-censorship where they purged any novels that feature government officials or descriptions of the Chinese government.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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