As President Trump’s trade war with China continues to escalate, there is a more urgent issue with China that remains overlooked: the continued illegal importation into the United States of the deadly synthetic opioid, fentanyl.
According to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 59% of last year’s 50,000 opioid-related deaths were caused by fentanyl and its chemical variations. Indeed, America’s unprecedented opioid epidemic started with prescription painkillers, morphed into heroin, and has now moved full speed ahead into synthetics, with fentanyl leading the way.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that fentanyl can be 50 times as potent as heroin, and even the smallest amount—about 2 milligrams, or about 4 grains of salt—is deadly. Its chemical cousin, carfentanil, is even deadlier—just a single grain can kill. Before its illegal distribution as a cutting agent in heroin, carfentanil was seen primarily as an elephant tranquilizer. When it first started to appear in recent years in autopsies of deceased addicts, some medical examiners needed to borrow equipment from local zoos to accurately identify it.
Drug dealers have a financial incentive to spike heroin with fentanyl or its derivatives like carfentanil, as they provide a much greater high than heroin at a fraction of the price. The end user has no way of visually identifying which batch of heroin has been laced with these synthetic opioids, and some individuals are so consumed by addiction that they actually seek out the perilously euphoric high these drugs can provide. Among those with substance use disorder, this is called “chasing the dragon.”
We cannot solve this unprecedented opioid epidemic that now kills 136 people a daywithout targeting fentanyl. That means confronting the People’s Republic of China, which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of fentanyl. Most fentanyl on America’s streets is illicitly manufactured in Chinese laboratories and often smuggled into the U.S. by Mexican cartels using established networks for heroin and methamphetamine. Chinese suppliers also rely on an unwitting drug runner to export their poison: the United States Postal Service.
Unlike private companies such as UPS or FedEx, the Postal Service is not required by law to get advance electronic data, such as the names and addresses of the sender, to help identify and intercept drug parcels. To close this loophole, the U.S. Senate needs to pass the Synthetic Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act—already approved by the U.S. House of Representatives—that would require the Postal Service to maintain the same security standards as private carriers.
When it comes to pressuring China to stop the exportation of deadly drugs, the United States has been here before. The synthetic stimulant, Alpha-PVP, also known as “flakka,” exploded on the scene in 2014 and 2015. Horrified communities saw drug users experience extreme paranoia, hallucinations and, in some cases, shocking violence. But just as suddenly as flakka appeared, it largely vanished—due mostly to the Chinese government’s ban on its production and exportation in October 2015.
Importantly, China’s decision to end the flakka crisis was not a mere act of international goodwill, but rather a response to U.S. and European pressure. Despite China’s economic liberalization, its government is still a Marxist-Leninist system run by the Communist Party of China with a leader for life, President Xi Jinping. If it wants to ban the production and/or exportation of fentanyl—as it did with flakka—it can do so without debate or filibuster from the minority party because there is no minority party.
However, rising trade tensions with China threaten to undermine any cooperation on fentanyl. In 2015, China acceded to U.S. government requests by adding six fentanyl products to its list of controlled substances, but the U.S. death toll continues to mount. Further tariff escalation will surely dampen the enthusiasm of the Chinese government to comply with U.S. demands to stop spreading these synthetic opioids into the country. Indeed, a top official in China’s drug control agency recently shifted blame to the United States, saying “when fewer and fewer Americans use fentanyl, there would be no market for it.”
When it comes to bilateral negotiations with China, economic issues such as trade deficits and protection of intellectual property are obviously important topics of discussion. Though, too often forgotten is China’s role in feeding America’s opioid epidemic. Moving forward, this should be the top priority in future discussions with Chinese government officials.
A strategy of cooperation and conciliation with China to encourage an end to fentanyl exportation has not worked. President Trump has apparently decided that now is the time we should get tough with China on trade, but if a fight is truly warranted, then more than anything else, it should be over the carnage wrought by cheap, potent Chinese fentanyl and its derivatives.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed more than 70 bipartisan bills designed to combat the opioid crisis, but for a greater overall impact, the federal government should look farther to the east and exact greater pressure on the country that has the power to turn off the spigot but refuses to do so.
Dave Aronberg is the State Attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida.