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The Fentanyl Issue and China-U.S. Cooperation

2024-01-12 11:35:00 Source:China Focus Author:Clifford A. Kiracofe
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At their summit meeting in San Francisco, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden announced continued cooperation on counternarcotics issues. Interaction on a wide range of issues is an inevitable part of the mix in bilateral relations.

Although President Ronald Reagan launched a “War on Drugs” in 1980s and all subsequent presidents continued it, the results are not encouraging. The drug crisis in America is more extensive than ever covering the entire country both in urban and rural areas.

From a perspective of the United States, to solve the fentanyl issue, it not only needs domestic efforts, but also needs international cooperation with China, Mexico, Canada, and India.

China-U.S. cooperation on counternarcotics and law enforcement is essential to the well being of both countries. Continued cooperation on counternarcotics is good news for Chinese and Americans in the New Year.

Fighting illegal fentanyl is a key concern. The fentanyl issue has been used by some U.S. politicians and media to bash China. The issue should not be politicized. Cooperation on counternarcotics is today managed on a professional basis through diplomacy and through law enforcement interaction.

Decades-old drug problem in the U.S.

The drug epidemic in the United States flared up in the 1980s and has proceeded apace since then. Cocaine production ramped up in Colombia and the illegal drug made its way into the United States through the Caribbean, across the southern border with Mexico, and up into California on the Pacific Coast.

The United States fentanyl crisis of the last decade is part of its broader historic drug crisis of the past four decades. The driving factor is U.S. demand for illegal drugs and this demand has steadily increased over the years owing to a number of socio-economic factors. Demand reduction overall has not been effective despite increased efforts at prevention in local communities.

Drug smuggling operations involve criminal organizations in producer states, such as Colombia and Peru, teaming up with criminal organizations in Mexico. The very powerful Mexican organizations are known as “cartels” and there are a number of them competing with each other for the North American market.

A man walks past a large consignment of drugs seized by police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17, 2022. (Photo/Xinhua)

Americans spend over $150 billion a year on illegal drugs. The U.S. government has spent over a trillion dollars on its “war on drugs” seemingly with little effect. The United States is the largest single market for illegal drugs on the planet.

During the 1980s, as cocaine trafficking increased, heroin from Latin America was added to the mix. While Mexican “brown tar” heroin had been a decades old problem a new surge of heroin from Latin America entered the United States piggybacking on the cocaine trafficking.

The next phase of illicit drugs in the United States involved various pharmaceutical opioids that had been illegally diverted from legal production or had been over prescribed by the medical profession. Pharmaceutical drug makers eventually became involved in federal law suits for their role in pushing these addictive drugs on unwary patients.

The crisis in prescription opioid drugs arose in the U.S. over the past decade and a half. Legal painkillers were greatly over prescribed by doctors and pushed on the public by unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies. Corruption in the medical community accounts for over prescription as well as for illicit diversion. Millions of Americans have been impacted.

This opioid crisis set the stage for the fentanyl crisis by getting the public used to painkillers and overusing them. The illegal diversion of legal painkillers to drug users created a whole new group of addicts apart from the heroin addicts. In turn, many in this group of addicts shifted toward heroin as it is cheaper on the street. The increased demand for heroin then became the occasion for the introduction of fentanyl into this expanding market.

Fentanyl crisis develops

Following mass opioid and heroin addiction across the United States the fentanyl crisis intensified. Unlike plant-based cocaine and heroin, fentanyl is made directly from chemicals. These are known as “precursor” chemicals and they can be multiuse. It takes pharmaceutical grade laboratories to make fentanyl.

Fentanyl was introduced as a pharmaceutical drug in 1959. While some criminal diversion of legally produced fentanyl occurs in the United States the main problem by far is the illicit fentanyl smuggled in different forms into the United States.

A homeless person is seen on the sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles, California, the United States, Dec. 14, 2022. (Photo/Xinhua)

For example, ever increasing heroin use creates an opportunity for criminals to mix an amount of fentanyl into the heroin boosting its potency and their profits. Fentanyl can also be sold on its own mixed with a neutral base or mixed with other drugs. In all cases overdose is common and deaths are increasing. Just a few tiny grains of illicit fentanyl can kill a person. It is over 100 times more powerful than heroin.

The actual chemical composition of fentanyl can vary depending on the formulas used to produce it. These variations are called “analogues”. Pharmaceutical fentanyl in the United States is authorized for legitimate medical use in humans as well as for veterinary use. Anti-drug laws must extend to all chemical variations, or analogues, of illegally produced fentanyl so as to prevent evasion of criminal penalties for trafficking.

In the early stage of the fentanyl crisis over the past decade and a half, the illegal drug was smuggled into the United States through Canada across the border in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The origins of such shipments were from criminal organizations in Asia and apparently Hong Kong was a key center.

Later a new pattern of smuggling involved moving fentanyl across the southern border of the United States from Mexico. This has become the main way the drug enters the United States today. Because the Biden Administration has opened the southern border wide to illegal immigration drug smuggling has been facilitated.

This new pattern came to involve the laboratory production of fentanyl in Mexico itself rather than in Asia. Some of the precursor chemicals are said to come from China. That is why Chinese authorities have cracked down on Chinese criminal organizations involved in this trade.

A new factor in the cross-border fentanyl trade is the recent linkage of criminal organizations in India with the criminal organizations in Mexico, the cartels. This is because India has an advanced pharmaceutical industry and thus fentanyl production is known. The transfer of Indian involvement and pharmaceutical methods to Mexican cartels is seen as a growing narcotics threat by the United States.

Officers burn confiscated drugs in Mangshi City, capital of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, Jun. 26, 2017. (Photo/Xinhua)

Enhancing China-U.S. cooperation

The U.S. and China for a number of years have been cooperating effectively on counternarcotics issues to include fentanyl. Cooperation begun by the Obama administration advanced professional interaction by law enforcement. The Trump administration continued this effort.

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is represented with an office in China and the U.S. Department of State handles the diplomatic side. The DEA mission in China supports the local counternarcotics efforts. Such support involves investigations and exchange of relevant information.

DEA appreciates the level of cooperation and is developing its relations with China in a professional law enforcement working style, according to officials. Successes have included crackdowns on major criminal Hong Kong-based fentanyl operations.

China has step by step introduced controls and updated the listing of drugs that are scheduled. Such drugs are illegal to export from China and thus illicit exporters are subject to criminal prosecution. In cooperation with the U.S. in 2019, China further updated lists and classification of controlled substances including fentanyl and its analogues.

Both the U.S. and China have undertaken important steps in recent years to schedule and control all fentanyl variations including new ones once they are created. Thus, the objective of full and continuing control covers the entire class of fentanyl and fentanyl-related analogues.

Clearly, dangerous drugs are an international problem. The cooperation between China and the U.S. on fentanyl is significant, but it must be emphasized that the context must be global. Thus, the United Nations, relevant European organizations, and India must join in the close cooperation.

The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.

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