WASHINGTON—Lawmakers are seeking ways to hold China accountable for its role in fueling the opioid crisis.
China is the source of most illicit synthetic opioids that end up in the United States, either through the postal system or via Mexico and Canada.
More than 71,500 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017, according to provisional datareleased Aug. 15 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 percent of those deaths can be attributed to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which was originally developed as a painkiller and anesthetic.
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin—two milligrams of fentanyl is a lethal dose for a non-opioid user. It is often mixed with heroin or pressed into fake painkiller pills made to look like real prescription drugs, making them more deadly.
“I know that [China] could take offense at anything we say here, but we have to be candid—our American brothers and sisters are dying in every one of our districts,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee for Africa, global health, global human rights, and international organizations, at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 6.
“Chinese officials have repeatedly dodged the blame for contributing to the fentanyl crisis,” he said.
Top Chinese officials have pushed back on any blame, saying there is no proof that illicit fentanyl is coming from China and that the United States should focus on controlling demand, Smith said.
Paul Knierim, deputy chief of operations of global enforcement for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said China is one of the world’s top producers of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine and fentanyl, as well as the chemicals used to process heroin and cocaine.
“Over the past several years, DEA has identified numerous illicit fentanyl-class substances and hundreds of synthetic drugs from at least eight different drug classes, the vast majority of which are manufactured in China,” Knierim said.
“Because of its low dosage range and potency, one kilogram of fentanyl purchased in China for $3,000 to $5,000 can generate upwards of $1.5 million in revenue on the illicit market—with the potential of being lethal for 500,000 people.”
Using the Postal System
Knierim said drug traffickers often use freight forwarders—companies that arrange importing and exporting of goods—to ship fentanyl to the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
“The original supplier will provide the package to a freight forwarding company or individual, who transfers it to another freight forwarder, who then takes custody and presents the package to customs for export,” Knierim said.
“The combination of a chain of freight forwarders and multiple transfers of custody makes it challenging for law enforcement to track these packages. Often, the package will intentionally have missing, incomplete, and/or inaccurate information.”
For small packages, the U.S. Postal Service is the preferred method for drug traffickers, as the total volume is high, and less information is required to get a package through.
The USPS handled more than 275 million inbound international packages in 2016, according to an investigative report conducted by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and published in January.
That volume is three times larger than the combined volume (approximately 65.7 million) handled by the three largest express services—FedEx, UPS, and DHL.
On average, for the 2017 calendar year, 64 percent (or 204 million) of packages sent to the United States had no advanced electronic data about “who sent the package, where the package was going, or what was in the package,” according to the report.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for identifying suspicious packages sent through the international mail stream—primarily at mail centers located at five major airports, in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami.
For many years, packages from China weren’t sent from the USPS to CBP for inspection, due to high volume.
Kirsten Madison, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said the State Department is trying to deepen counternarcotics cooperation with China.
“This bilateral cooperation has yielded concrete results, including arrests, seizures, and takedowns of clandestine labs by Chinese law enforcement,” she said.
The Department of Justice announced its first indictments against two Chinese manufacturers of fentanyl and other opiate substances last year.
Approximately 160,000 chemical companies operate in China, according to the State Department.
On Aug. 29, China added a further 32 new psychoactive substances, including fentanyl analogues, to its controlled substance list, bringing the total to 175 since 2015. However, clandestine chemists can easily continue developing and synthesizing new synthetic opioids that don’t appear on any schedule of controlled substances, said Knierim.
“Sadly, these substances are often first discovered when DEA receives reports from local hospitals and coroners in connection with a spate of overdoses,” he said. “Unfortunately, the existing process to temporarily schedule a substance is reactionary and not agile enough to keep up with bad actors engineering illicit substances for the express purpose of skirting our laws.”
The DEA has operated an office in Beijing for the past 30 years to work with the Chinese regime. Knierim said the agency also plans to open bureaus in Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Opioid addiction isn’t a problem in China, and Smith doubts the regime has any real motivation to stem the flow.
“The Chinese have been masters in purporting to be in compliance with international treaties,” he said, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “They’ve milked that big-time, for years.”
“It doesn’t take much for a police state like China, if it’s serious, to crack down,” he said. “They certainly crack down on dissent, they crack down on labor unions. … They know what people are saying when they go on Facebook, or any other social media. Their abilities there are incredible.”
Smith asked Madison if the State Department would look into using the Global Magnitsky Act—which targets corrupt officials and human-rights abusers—against Chinese officials who might be complicit in the illicit opioid trade.
“Perhaps it is time we start thinking outside the box and use something like Global Magnitsky to ensure that corrupt Chinese officials and narco-traffickers are held to account,” he said.
“I’ve chaired 65-plus hearings on Chinese human-rights abuses and the complicity of the Chinese government in human-rights abuse is legendary. It is so awful.”
If you or someone you know needs help for an opioid addiction, call the national helpline:
Or find resources online at SAMHSA.gov