The United States consumes 85% of all the world’s natural and synthetic opiates, which in 2015 factored in 33,091 U.S. deaths, up more than 4000 from the previous year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. When average U.S. life expectancies for men and women edged downward last year, for the first time in decades, many health professionals blamed opiate abuse.
The opium poppy is no longer the starting point for many of the opiates on the street. The new compounds, often sold mixed with heroin, originate in illicit labs in China. “For the cartels, why wait for a field of poppies to grow and harvest if you can get your hands on the precursor chemicals and cook a batch of fentanyl in a lab?” says Tim Reagan, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) Cincinnati office.
In late 2015, the drug agency persuaded its Chinese counterpart to add 116 synthetic drugs to its list of controlled substances; fentanyl and several analogs were included. In response, underground Chinese labs began tweaking the fentanyl molecule, which is easy to alter for anyone with basic knowledge of chemistry and lab tools. By adding chemical groups, unscrupulous chemists have created new, unregulated variants, some of them even more potent than the original.
Hoping to stem the tide of synthetic opiates, DEA has taken the fight to China, as prolific a maker of illicit drugs as it is of legitimate chemicals. According to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report last month, “China is a global source of illicit fentanyl and other [new psychoactive substances] because the country’s vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries are weakly regulated and poorly monitored.” In response to U.S. pressure, China has scheduled fentanyl and several other derivatives. More here.
Congress should sanction China operations due to synthetic opioid production and should also list all variants of synthetic opioids as weapons of mass destruction under the chemical and biological weapons convention. DEA now has offices in China to work with officials there and investigation trafficking patterns.