China to Help US Fight Opioid Imports After Smuggling Loopholes Revealed

By Paul Gaita 01/31/18

A recent congressional investigation was able to find six "very responsive" fentanyl vendors located in China through a simple Google search.

package on doorstep
A congressional report claims it has evidence that China is responsible for rising fentanyl imports.

China has announced that it intends to work with the United States to fight illegal shipments of opioids after a congressional investigation discovered how opioid manufacturers have exploited inadequate safeguards in the U.S. Postal System through which they can ship large quantities of fentanyl, among other drugs, to this country.

A probe by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs investigations subcommittee found that an advanced electronic data system (AED) used to identify suspicious packages captured information on only a third of all international packages, leaving more than 300 million packages unscreened and a clear path for Chinese opioid manufacturers to ship lethal substances to individuals in the United States.

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) said that it has made the collection of this electronic data a priority, while a spokesperson from China's foreign ministry was quoted as saying that the country is "ready to work with the US to enhance our cooperation in this field."

The findings of the probe were released in a congressional report on January 24, 2018, and detailed the relative ease of acquiring fentanyl from Chinese manufacturers.

Subcommittee staff told reporters that by simply conducting an internet search using the phrase "fentanyl for sale," they found six "very responsive" sellers in China. Ultimately, investigators were able to identify 500 online transactions involving fentanyl with an estimated value of $776 million, as well as seven confirmed deaths from fentanyl in the United States that were linked to Chinese sales.

Sellers reportedly pushed for investigators to pay for delivery through Express Mail Service (EMS), an international shipping method that uses each country's postal system, including the U.S. Postal Service. In an email to an investigator, one seller wrote, "guaranteed delivery only via EMS, other shipping methods will not be guaranteed." Investigators also noted that surcharges were applied to customers who requested shipment through delivery services such as FedEx or DHL because of the greater chance that the packages would be inspected.

According to investigators, EMS was the preferred method for shipping opioids to the U.S. because the Postal Service had failed to implement an AED system used to alert U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents about suspicious international packages. The report noted that only a third of data on such shipments was received by the Postal Service, leaving approximately 318 million parcels unmonitored. Despite this concern, the Senate report showed that no significant improvement in collecting data occurred during 2017.

In a statement to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said that nearly 60% of all overdose deaths in his state in 2016 were related to fentanyl. "The vast majority of illegal fentanyl is purchased online from labs in China and then shipped to the United States through the mail," he stated. "The federal government can, and must, act to shore up our defenses against this deadly drug and save lives."

A spokesperson for USPS said that the agency is working "aggressively with law enforcement and key trading partners to stem the flow of illegal drugs entering the United States," while a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson noted that it will "continue to work with our government and private-sector partners to improve the efficiency of information sharing and operational coordination to address the challenges and threats" of international narcotics smuggling.

Speaking on behalf of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, spokesperson Hua Chunying said that "anti-drug coordination is one of the highlights of China-US law enforcement cooperation," and that the country is "ready to work with the US to enhance its coordination in this field." Though Chinese officials have worked to curb sales of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs in their country, they have also pushed back against assessments like the one made by Portman.

In a press conference in December 2017, National Narcotics Control Commission official Yu Haibin said that there was "little evidence showing China was the source of much of the chemicals used in the production of the powerful opioid fentanyl."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.