Smuggling of the deadly Synthetic opioid FENTANYL

In September 2021, Rory Booth (pseudo-name for privacy concerns) found his then 16-year-old daughter, Sofi, gasping for air in their home near Boulder, Colorado. His daughter was suffering from an overdose. She had taken half a Percocet pill laced with Fentanyl unknowingly.

Sofi Booth, Fentanyl overdose survivor

Sofi Booth said,” I found some powder substance. I crushed it up and took a line. I felt kind of sparkly for two seconds and then I woke up in the hospital.”

Sergeant of the Lafayette Colorado Police Department arrived on the scene in minutes and started chest compressions. He quickly administered Narcan to an unconscious and barely breathing Sofi and took her to the hospital.
On that day, Sofi Booth survived. Others who have experienced Fentanyl-linked drug overdoses were not as lucky.

We will explore what is Fentanyl, how it impacts human health, how it is smuggled around the world, and how it has impacted the US-China relations over the years in this investigative report.


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. However, despite its excellent pain-receiving capacity, its use as an opioid/narcotic drug is gaining attention worldwide. There are loads of Fentanyl addicts worldwide, mostly in rich economies, and most recent cases of Fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death are linked to illegally made Fentanyl. This is where the role of China as the hub of the illegal Fentanyl supply chain comes to the forefront.

Synthetic opioids on the rise
Synthetic opioids rose exponentially in the past decade

How potent is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect. It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product—with or without the user’s knowledge—to increase its euphoric effects

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times than morphine. Just two milligrams (2mg) of Fentanyl, or the amount that could fit on the tip of a pencil, is considered a potentially lethal dose.

How does Fentanyl affect your body?

Fentanyl produces multifarious effects such as: relaxation, elation, exhilaration, euphoria, pain relief, sedation, confusion, tiredness, sleepiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction, and respiratory depression.

Fentanyl Production Hub

China was the source of 97% of inbound shipments of high-purity Fentanyl during 2016 and 2017 and over 70% after it.

China's Fentanyl production centers
Registered locations in China of companies that advertise an array of substances, including Fentanyl precursor chemicals and Fentanyl analogs. (Credits: www.npr.org)

Synthetic opioid vendors favor working out of China’s industrial hinterlands, where policing can be less strict. Of the 92 Fentanyl and Fentanyl-analog selling entities C4ADS was able to identify with location details, 41% listed their corporate address in Shijiazhuang.

Fentanyl Trafficking Routes

The hub of the Fentanyl smuggling to the world is China which sends API and precursors to the final Fentanyl to countries in South Asia like Myanmar. India and Vietnam are also major victims of these products. From these countries and other informal routes, Fentanyl reaches Australia, Mexico, and European markets. These drugs are then smuggled to countries like the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Brazil and in limited amounts to Africa.

China to Myanmar then Mexico, USA and Australia Fentanyl smuggling
Smuggling route of Fentanyl (Credits: www.brookings.edu)
China to USA  Fentanyl smuggling
Smuggling of Fentanyl to USA from China through Mexico (Credits: DEA Intelligence Report)

In Mexico, many prominent cartels smuggle Fentanyl to the USASinaloa is one of the oldest and most established cartels in Mexico that smuggles Fentanyl received from China and Myanmar. Other than SinaloaGuadalajaraMexico-based Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) is one of the most powerful and fastest-growing Fentanyl cartels in Mexico. 

Following is a schematic diagram to show how Fentanyl reaches the buyers from the traders through the dark web and the use of crypto currency.

Fentanyl smuggling through dark web and cryptocurrency
Schematic diagram of the smuggling of Fentanyl through Dark Web

Seizures of illicit Fentanyl and other opioids at international mail facilities (IMFs) have increased over the last few years. Though Fentanyl seizures made at land crossings are higher in number and larger in volume, the Fentanyl seizures from mail and express consignment carrier (ECC) facilities are more potent. The majority of illicit Fentanyl in the international mail and ECC environments are shipped with purities of over 90%.

Which countries are most affected?

Distribution of Fentanyl consumption globally from 2018 to 2020 by country (Credits: Statista)
Distribution of Fentanyl consumption globally from 2018 to 2020 by country (Credits: Statista)

Fentanyl is most prevalent in Germany, the USA, Spain, France, and Italy among others. The significant points to ponder here are :

1. Despite the high prevalence of Fentanyl in European countries, most of them have poor regulations to control it. 

2. Despite the highest production of APIs and final Fentanyl in China, the consumption of the synthetic drug in China is abysmal. 

The US- China Relations and Fentanyl

Drug Overdose Death in US
Drug Overdose Death in US

The deadliest issue in the U.S.-China relationship right now isn’t the potential for military conflict over Taiwan, but the thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. each year from illicit Fentanyl made from Chinese raw materials. Synthetic opioids remain the source of the deadliest U.S. drug epidemic ever. Since 1999, drug overdoses have killed approximately 1 million Americans, an overdose lethality that has increased significantly since 2012 when synthetic opioids from China began supplying the U.S. demand for illicit opioids.

In contrast, there are very few cases of Fentanyl addiction in China. Professor Hao Wei from the Institute of Mental Health of the Second Xiangya Hospital of Central South University analyzed that this is because of the strict control of the Chinese government and the dual role of Chinese culture. He said, “The Opium War is an eternal pain for the Chinese people. Whether doctors, family members, or even patients themselves are vigilant about opioids, the amount of opioids in China is extremely limited.”

TRUMP against Fentanyl

It is a matter of public health crisis for the US. So much so that ex-US President Donald Trump called out China publicly on this matter.

Even though China placed the entire class of Fentanyl-type drugs and two key Fentanyl precursors under a controlled regulatory regime in May 2019, it remains the principal source of Fentanyl all over the world. Fentanyl scheduling and China’s adoption of stricter mail monitoring has created some deterrence effects. 

How USA tried to curb the menace

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration has seized the websites publicly selling Fentanyl in more than 20 languages from labs speculated to be in China. The US is also hunting for people involved in the online selling of Fentanyl. However, they are sold unabated on the Dark Web.

Websites from China seized by USDEA selling drugs online
Websites from China seized by USDEA selling drugs online
Details of the person wanted for smuggling of Fentanyl
Details of the person wanted for smuggling of Fentanyl

A report released on August 24, 2022, by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) called cooperation with China on curbing opioid Fentanyl trafficking in the US “weak”, hindering the U.S. crackdown on increasingly complex Fentanyl Trafficking Efforts.

Latest Developments

U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping discussed the Fentanyl issue during a call in July and tasked their teams to conduct follow-up work. However, to protest a visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China suspended cooperation with the U.S. to combat narcotics trafficking, including illicit Fentanyl.

“disappointed by the move in light of the ongoing overdose epidemic driven by fentanyl that has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the U.S. in the past year. At a time when illicit fentanyl continues to claim a life every five minutes, it’s unacceptable that China is withholding cooperation that would help to bring to justice individuals who traffic these illicit drugs and who engage in this global criminal enterprise”

Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)

Conclusion

On the Sofi Booth incident, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said, “I get daily reports of suspected individuals who have passed away as a result of Fentanyl overdoses,”.

More than 100,000 lives of unsuspecting youth were lost in the U.S. alone in 2021 claiming a life every five minutes!! China, Myanmar, and Mexico need to take strict measures to dismantle the Fentanyl smuggling supply chain and control the loss of human lives worldwide.


Sources :

https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/attack-fentanyl-flows-across-borders-real-emergency

https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/basics/fentanyl.html

https://www.jmir.org/2021/2/e24486/

https://www.rand.org/pubs/external_publications/EP68838.html

https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/US-China-tensions/U.S.-slams-China-for-halting-cooperation-to-combat-fentanyl

https://abcnews.go.com/


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