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Drugs

US report says China not moving fast enough to stem flow of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids

  • Beijing is called ‘slow and ineffective’ in cracking down on the production and overseas sales of synthetic opioids to the US
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 6:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 8:48pm

Bilateral efforts to stem the flow of synthetic opioids like fentanyl from China to the United States are being stymied by China’s inadequate regulations on pharmaceutical and chemical production, according to a report released Monday by a US congressional commission.

Beijing’s classification of controlled substances is “slow and ineffective”, warned the report by the US-China Security and Economic Review Commission.

According to the report, Beijing's step-by-step approach to legally classifying chemicals has hampered its ability to crack down on the production of fentanyl, a substance 50 times more powerful than heroin. Because the drug can exist in many variations – or “analogues” – producers can easily skirt regulations by adjusting its chemical make-up.

“Because the Chinese government schedules chemicals one by one, illicit manufacturers create new substances faster than they can be controlled,” the report said.

US lawmakers propose going after Chinese suppliers of fentanyl

In negotiations between the two countries’ drug control authorities, US representatives had urged the Chinese government to consider a blanket regulation that would categorise the entire fentanyl class of substances as a controlled substance, prohibiting their production, use and distribution, the report said.

Such a move would follow steps taken by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which earlier this year issued a temporary order lasting two years to schedule all fentanyl derivatives as controlled substances.

China has yet to consider the recommendation for a similar regulation, though DEA officials said that Beijing was receptive to the idea, according to the report.

Despite maintaining that the US fentanyl crisis – responsible for almost 29,500 deaths in 2017 – was a matter of domestic market demand and not supply, Chinese authorities have taken part in efforts to curb the flow of fentanyl from China to the US.

At a September hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Paul Knierim of the DEA said that enforcement officials from both sides had met regularly since 2014.

“For the past four years, representatives from China’s National Narcotics Laboratory have met with DEA experts to exchange information on emerging substances, trafficking trends and drug sampling standards,” Knierim, the deputy chief of operations at the agency’s Office of Global Enforcement, said.

Figures released in August by China’s National Narcotics Control Commission indicated the addition of 32 new psychoactive substances (NPS) to its list of 170 controlled substances, which also includes 25 fentanyl substances.

Substance control on its own would not be enough to stop the flow of fentany, said USCC commissioner Katherine Tobin, “but it is a necessary first step”.

“Getting control at the first step of the supply chain is critical,” she told the South China Morning Post.

Collaboration key to solving China-fuelled opioid epidemic, US officials say

But questions remain as to the effectiveness of such classification to hamper the ability of opioid producers, many of whom operate on the black market anyway and ship the product to the US in unmarked, small packages through commercial shipping providers like FedEx and UPS.

Failings of China’s chemical and pharmaceutical regulatory framework were “due in part to misaligned incentive structures for local governments, which are encouraged to prioritise economic growth and development objectives above all else”, the report concluded.

The problem was compounded by the complex bureaucracy that governed the regulation of chemicals, said the report, citing “the fragmented nature of China’s administrative system that oversees the production and export of chemical and pharmaceutical products”.

Because the Chinese government schedules chemicals one by one, illicit manufacturers create new substances faster than they can be controlled
US-China Security and Economic Review Commission report

Monday’s report listed a number of fentanyl-class substances China added to its list of controlled substances since February 2017 – including carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl and valeryl fentanyl, and precursor chemicals used in the production of fentanyl substances, such as 4ANPP.

But a cursory search online returned several China-based pharmaceutical firms that market their products for “chemical research” purposes and found that all these substances were still publicly advertised and available to buy.

A company representative for one such firm – Angel Pharmaceutical – previously told the South China Morning Post that government checks were strict, but that the company operated its own laboratory and was selling packages of fentanyl substances to US buyers at a cost of US$5,500 per kilogram.

The US Congress has made several efforts to enact legislation to counter the influx of synthetic opioids from overseas. In October, US President Donald Trump signed into law the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, directing the US Postal Service, which handles some international shipments once they enter the country, to require advance electronic data on packages.

Trump blames China for ‘outrageous’ fentanyl overdose epidemic

Also in October, Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on global health, introduced the Combating Illicit Fentanyl Act of 2018, now awaiting a House vote. If passed, the legislation would require the Treasury and State departments to investigate and sanction any Chinese national involved in the production or export of fentanyl.

Monday’s report comes at a time of heightened tension between the US and Chinese governments, as their dispute over trade has spread to multiple fronts, including sabre rattling in the South China Sea, sanctions over China’s procurement of arms from Russia, and increased scrutiny of China’s human rights record.

Trump, who is expected to discuss trade with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this week on the tails of the G20 summit in Argentina, previously categorised of the flow of fentanyl from China to the US as “outrageous”.

Despite that, China was not included among a list his office provided to the State Department identifying the world’s 10 major drug-producing countries.