The Real Poison Pill in U.S.-China Trade
Following a historic dinner between President Trump and President Xi last December in Argentina on the margins of the G20 Summit, many of us awaited news on tariffs. We were surprised when, as part of a trade announcement, President Trump hailed a commitment from China to step up its regulatory oversight of fentanyl, the opioid that the Centers for Disease Control says has caused a “third wave” of drug-related overdose deaths in the United States.
It seems the seedy underbelly of e-commerce involves a steady stream of online purchases of deadly variants of the drug fentanyl, made in China and shipped to American doorsteps through the U.S. postal service.
Deadly Parcels from China
Fatal drug overdoses have doubled over the last decade, rising from 36,010 in 2007 to 70,237 in 2017. Synthetic opioids other than methadone – mainly fentanyl – now account for 40 percent of all drug overdose deaths and 60 percent of opioid overdose deaths.
China is the primary source of illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and fentanyl precursor chemicals in the United States. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, almost 80 percent of fentanyl seized in 2017 was interdicted at U.S. Postal Service and express consignment carrier facilities, having been shipped in small quantities from China.
Fentanyl precursors are also shipped from China to Mexico, and to a lesser degree Canada, before being synthesized, often mixed with heroin or cocaine, repackaged, and then trafficked over U.S. land borders in the southwest.
Last March, the White House stepped up its campaign against opioid abuse, seeking to address factors driving both demand and supply. The Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse (referred to as STOP) includes education programs, measures to curb over-prescription, expanded access to treatment and recovery, and – a focus on cutting off the flow of illicit drugs from China.
According to Homeland Security, more fentanyl in larger volumes is seized at land crossings, but the fentanyl seized from mail and express consignment carrier facilities is far more potent with purities of over 90 percent versus Mexico-sourced fentanyl that is often diluted to less than 10 percent.
The president’s initiative would require the postal service to provide advance electronic data for 90 percent of all international mail shipments within the next two years, offering data that will help law enforcement identify and seize illegal substances shipped through mail. Private shippers such as UPS and FedEx routinely require such electronic data.
The administration is also scaling up the Department of Justice’s “darknet” enforcement efforts. Fentanyl in its various forms is relatively cheap and easy to buy from China online paying with cryptocurrencies, or even credit cards or money transfers.
Over One Million Pills a Day – In One Factory in China
China has grown to become the largest mass producer of generic drugs and pharmaceutical ingredients in the world with over 5,000 pharmaceutical manufacturers. Upwards of 90 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used in U.S. production of finished dosage forms of medical pharmaceuticals is imported from just two countries: India and China.
In addition, China has over 160,000 chemical producers and hundreds of thousands of pharmaceutical and chemicals distributors. The explosion in volume and number of producers has far outstripped China’s FDA (CFDA) from adequately regulating and monitoring them.
Faster Than Can Be Regulated
Unlike opioids derived from the poppy plant, fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller produced in a laboratory. It is 50 times more potent than heroine and 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Inhaling just two milligrams of pure fentanyl can be lethal.
In the United States, most fentanyl products are classified either as Schedule I chemicals, those that have no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse, or as Schedule II chemicals, those with medical use but only available through a non-refillable prescription.
Fentanyl’s molecular structure can be easily modified to create new derivatives, putting regulators constantly behind in evaluating and classifying each new variant one-by-one. From furanyl fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl, to carfentanil — to name just a few — fentanyl has hundreds of analogues that differ slightly from the original, enabling criminal producers to operate in a gray territory while regulators struggle to ban the new substances. Legislation passed in 2017 now allows U.S. FDA to schedule fentanyl analogues immediately on a temporary basis while the agency conducts its investigations.
President Trump has urged President Xi to implement a similar approach. China currently controls around 25 types of fentanyl-related products. President Trump wants China to establish fentanyl as its own class of controlled substances, restricting all fentanyl analogues, including future fentanyl-like substances. Doing so would be a start.
Busting Drug Trade
Such a commitment by China is not, however, likely to put a dent in its fentanyl exports to the United States absent real enforcement. In recent years, CFDA has imposed stricter licensing requirements for pharmaceutical and chemical producers, but diversion, adulteration, and clandestine production remain significant problems.
“Chinese chemical manufacturers export a range of fentanyl products to the United States, including raw fentanyl, fentanyl precursors, fentanyl analogues, fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription drugs like oxycodone, and pill presses and other machinery necessary for fentanyl production.” — U.S China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report
CFDA has undergone several reorganizations in the last few years. In the most recent, some of its regulatory responsibilities have devolved to provinces and counties with little accountability. Pre-marketing approvals will be managed separately from post-market inspections and surveillance. With just a little over 2,000 inspectors, authorities have little hope of effectively overseeing legal compliance, let alone spotting even a fraction of criminal activity.
The central government has assisted U.S. drug and law enforcement agencies, sharing information and intelligence that helps U.S. agencies target Chinese nationals trafficking illicit drugs in the United States. To alleviate the free flow of fentanyl from China, the Chinese government should also prosecute transnational criminals operating in China in high-profile cases with severe penalties.
Soybeans, Tech Transfer, and Fentanyl
Trade talks over soybeans and intellectual property protections for American technologies seem an unlikely setting for addressing illicit trade in deadly fentanyl.
There are some in the United States who are frustrated with this administration’s willingness to toss out the traditional trade policy playbook, but this is one case where it can welcomed by everyone.
Interested to read about fentanyl trade in more detail?
See two key reports produced by U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission analyst Sean O’Connor: Fentanyl: China’s Deadly Export to the United States, February 2017 and Fentanyl Flows from China: An Update, November 2018