Chemical weapons

How the opioid fentanyl could be a bargaining chip in the trade war


US needs China’s help on opioids

The British were the dominant force in the opium trade during imperial times, but the Americans were pretty decent drug pushers too. By the early 1800s merchants from the US managed about a tenth of the opium trade, through men such as John Astor, Robert Forbes, Samuel Russell, Warren Delano Jr (Franklin D Roosevelt’s grandfather) and Thomas Perkins. From some of the surnames, you might suppose that a few of the most prominent families in America partly founded their fortunes on trafficking drugs to the Chinese.

The dynamics of the drug trade have now reversed. The US has become a massive consumer of opioid narcotics and China is one of the major suppliers – not by growing poppy plants but by producing a potent synthetic substance called fentanyl.

Deaths associated with the narcotic – designed as a painkiller more powerful than morphine – have doubled each year since 2013 in the US, reaching 18,335 in 2016, according to the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl has overtaken heroin as the deadliest substance, accounting for 29% of fatal overdoses. The proportion of fatalities may have reached 42% last year, the federal government estimates.

Branding the fight against opioid abuse as “a national emergency”, President Donald Trump has been celebrating his recent success in getting the Chinese to designate fentanyl as a “controlled substance”.

The decision – yet to be formalised in legislation – will subject criminals caught exporting the drug to the US to “China’s maximum penalty under the law”, said the White House. China’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement indicating it will begin the process of revising relevant laws and regulations.

CNBC points out that the maximum sentence for drug distribution in China is the death penalty and Trump tweeted on December 5 that he wants the sentence to be given to any Chinese caught dealing in this “horror drug”.

The agreement follows a report by the US government citing China as the largest source of illicit fentanyl. It blames an “ineffective” regulatory regime that enables chemical and pharmaceutical producers to export dangerous drugs without detection. Other investigations found that fentanyl is commonly sold through e-commerce platforms and that Chinese sellers, preferring payment made in cryptocurrencies, offer tips to buyers on evading screening by the US Postal Service.

Yet American authorities could neither arrest Chinese nationals they indicted nor request extradition of suspects because selling fentanyl to the US didn’t contravene Chinese law, Bloomberg reported in May.

A cautiously optimistic American media sees the latest move as a first step in the process of stemming the opioid epidemic. However, frustrating these efforts, pointed out a paper last month by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, are the manufacturing and regulatory realities in China. “Because the Chinese government schedules chemicals one by one, illicit manufacturers can create new substances faster than they can be controlled,” it noted.

Op-eds in Party mouthpiece the Global Times have viewed America’s fentanyl problem more as an external issue. “In the context that the US itself lacks effective measures to curtail the abuse of fentanyl domestically, China’s humanitarian assistance cannot fundamentally help solve [its] problems,” wrote Chen Xinjin, a professor at Fujian University.

The fentanyl deal was brokered at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires this month. Trump sees it as a win given the opioid crisis costs America $504 billion per year, according to estimates by The Council of Economic Advisers. If China does choke off fentanyl sales that would at least be one positive outcome to emerge from the trade war.

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