China Denies Being Primary Source of Fentanyl, Cracks Down On Vendors

By Victoria Kim 12/21/16

Despite the crackdown, new variations of popular synthetic opioids continue to enter the black market. 

fentanyl pills
Photo via DEA

As synthetic opioid drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil continue to pop up across the country, mounting anecdotal evidence has led U.S. officials to blame China for being a primary source of the substances. But China says more evidence is needed to support this claim.

These substances have been blamed for spurring waves of overdoses that took place over the summer, in Ohio in particular. According to authorities, street dealers cut heroin and other illicit drugs (though not as often) with fentanyl or carfentanil to boost profit margins. Fentanyl is said to be 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. And carfentanil is said to be 100 times deadlier than fentanyl, according to the DEA.

Chinese drug policy officials recently addressed the country’s alleged role in providing synthetic opioids to American drug users, saying U.S. officials like the DEA and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) “lack the support of sufficient numbers of actual, confirmed cases” to be able to dub China as a primary supplier.

The country's National Narcotics Control Commission has apparently been cracking down harder on synthetic opioid production and export in China, after an October AP investigation exposed just how easy it is to purchase them from Chinese vendors online.

Russ Baer of the DEA told AP that though China is “not the only source of the problem,” the country is a “dominant source” of fentanyl, precursor chemicals and pill presses that are being exported to the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

For now, there is limited data on where exactly all this black market fentanyl is coming from. But according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, of the 134 pounds of fentanyl seized in 2015, about 66% came from Mexico, while 35% came from China.

Mexico is often named as a fentanyl source as well, but authorities see it more as a middleman which initially deals with China to obtain the substances. Mexican officials confirmed to AP that the chemicals are coming from China.

As a result of the AP investigation, China is directing greater scrutiny once again on its chemicals industry. In addition to regulating fentanyl and 18 related compounds, it is now considering cracking down on carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl, and valeryl fentanyl.

But as the country turns up the heat on those specific chemicals, newer ones pop up like U-47700 or “Pink.” This is another synthetic opioid that’s eight times stronger than heroin, and has been linked to 80 deaths throughout the U.S. since January of this year, according to Pennsylvania’s NMS Labs.

It’s a similar dance that’s inherent in drug war policies. Outlaw one substance, and alternatives pop up. However, authorities are hopeful that China’s attempts at regulating synthetic drugs will be successful, as similar efforts in the past have seemingly produced positive results.

One example is the rise and fall of "flakka," or bath salts. Use of the stimulant was a problem in South Florida in recent years. Between September 2014 and December 2015, 63 flakka users died in the region. But this year, those incidents dropped dramatically.

Jim Hall, a Florida drug abuse epidemiologist hypothesized that the drop happened after China banned the production and export of alpha-PVP, the chemical name for the drug. U.S. officials had pressured China to enact the ban, which went into effect in October 2015.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr