War against synthetic opioids must be won

  • Following an epidemic of overdose deaths in the United States, Xi Jinping has served notice that mainland traffickers will face the full force of the law
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 9:48pm

One of mankind’s abiding fears is a lethal biological scourge that can change its identity to thwart containment, such as genetic mutations of dangerous viruses or superbugs. Deadly synthetic opioid drugs may not be contagious, even though highly addictive, but if identity changes can be engineered in the manufacturing process to deceive anti-narcotics authorities, they too can pose a challenging social and public health crisis.

A case in point is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and related chemicals which are linked to an epidemic of overdose deaths in the United States. Chemists, including some on the mainland, thwart attempts to cut off or disrupt supplies by creating derivatives that get around them.

Of all the contentious and sensitive topics raised at last weekend’s meeting between President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, this one presented perhaps the most obvious opportunity for a win-win outcome.

Beijing has previously rejected claims by Trump that Chinese suppliers are fuelling the supply of drugs and chemicals linked to the US epidemic and China is not doing enough to halt it, saying the Americans need to do more to address domestic demand for such dangerous drugs.

How China plans to beat the fentanyl chemists

But Xi agreed to designate fentanyl a controlled substance, and served notice that traffickers who sold certain drugs in lucrative American markets could face China’s maximum penalty under the law. The American side welcomed the undertaking as “a wonderful humanitarian gesture”.

Days before, 21 people pleaded guilty at a Xingtai court in Hebei province to trading in illegal narcotics, after a bust involving US immigration and customs officials and Xingtai police.

Given the ability of chemists to reinvent dangerous psychoactive substances like fentanyl, China faces a battle to make meaningful inroads into the growing trade. But it is a war worth winning not just to neutralise a toxic irritant in China-US bilateral relations, but in terms of educational and deterrent value to many Chinese on the dangers of abusing these kinds of synthetic poisons.