A proliferating opioid overdose crisis in North America stemming from hyper-potent synthetic opiates such as Fentanyl has contributed to over 59,000 estimated overdose deaths in the United States (a 19% increase from 2015) and 2,458 in Canada last year. Illicit labs in China are one major source of the lethally potent synthetic drugs that have become common additives in street drugs on the North American black market. Last month at Science Magazine, Kathleen McLaughlin reported on Chinese chemists’ modifying synthetic opioid molecules to make unregulated “new psychoactive substance”; Chinese authorities’ difficulties with enforcement; and the emergence of cooperative cross-Pacific drug enforcement strategies to address the crisis:
DEA classified fentanyl as a schedule II drug decades ago, which makes it a felony to sell or use the opiate without a prescription. But in China, until recently, fentanyl was largely unregulated. In late 2015, the drug agency persuaded its Chinese counterpart to add 116 synthetic drugs to its list of controlled substances; fentanyl and several analogs were included. In response, underground Chinese labs began tweaking the fentanyl molecule, which is easy to alter for anyone with basic knowledge of chemistry and lab tools. By adding chemical groups, unscrupulous chemists have created new, unregulated variants, some of them even more potent than the original.
[…] Hoping to stem the tide of synthetic opiates, DEA has taken the fight to China, as prolific a maker of illicit drugs as it is of legitimate chemicals. According to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report last month, “China is a global source of illicit fentanyl and other [new psychoactive substances] because the country’s vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries are weakly regulated and poorly monitored.” In response to U.S. pressure, China has scheduled fentanyl and several other derivatives.
But enforcement is tough. Chinese labs producing the synthetic opiates play hide-and-seek with authorities. On their websites, they list fake addresses in derelict shopping centers or shuttered factories, and use third-party sales agents to conduct transactions that are hard to trace. The drugs themselves are easy to find with a Google search and to buy with a few mouse clicks. A recent check found more than a dozen Chinese sites advertising fentanyl, carfentanil, and other derivatives, often labeled as “research chemicals,” for sale through direct mail shipments to the United States. On one website, carfentanil goes for $361 for 50 grams: tens of thousands of lethal doses. […] [Source]
China’s National Narcotics Control Commission continues to ban newly created synthetic opioids, and will reportedly add four new analogues to the list on July 1, including U-47700—one of the synthetics found in the system of pop star Prince after his death last year. The increased scheduling, however, appears inadequate at effectively stymying the outflow of new psychoactive substances from China, as The Globe and Mail’s Nathan Vanderklippe reports:
China has already “scheduled” 138 “new psychoactive substances,” synthetic drugs that it has banned.[…]
The new measure comes amid a horrific worldwide rise in overdose deaths, growing numbers of them linked to the extraordinary toxicity of laboratory-produced chemicals that have been available for open purchase online, some on websites linked to Chinese manufacturers.
[…] Chinese officials have partnered with foreign police services, including from Canada, to fight drug production. But they said they did not know whether their efforts had done anything to slow the overall export of lab-made drugs. “There is no data,” Mr. Yu said.
The use of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, and websites hosted overseas, has made enforcement difficult, he said.
The speed with which chemists evade the law has also illuminated one of the weaknesses in China’s crackdown: Beijing outlaws individual chemical formulations. Canada, by contrast, bans types of drugs – such as fentanyl – as well as derivative modifications, which could be analogues or salts. [Source]
Another report from The Globe and Mail focuses on drug enforcement cooperation between China’s Ministry of Public Security and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the obstacle that the so-called “Dark Web” poses to their efforts. Robert Fife and Steven Chase report:
RCMP Chief Superintendent Scott Doran says most of the opioids such as fentanyl and its chemical precursors arrive in small packages through the mail from China, predominantly in the Vancouver area.
He told The Globe and Mail that bilateral efforts to track down the Chinese dealers behind the illegal opioid trade have proved almost impossible because of clandestine Internet trading sites, where buyers can visit anonymously and buy the drugs with bitcoin, a digital currency often regarded as untraceable.
[…] The Dark Web is part of the Internet that is intentionally hidden and requires special software and modified browsers to access. The encryption used on these sites has proved difficult for the police to crack.
[…] The collaboration between the RCMP and China only began last year after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed an agreement with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a visit to Ottawa in September, 2016. It led to a formal intelligence-sharing agreement between the RCMP and Ministry of Public Security.
In exchange for Chinese co-operation to stop the flow of illicit synthetic opioids, Beijing expects the RCMP to provide intelligence and help track down Chinese nationals living in Canada who are accused of economic crimes such as money laundering, bribery and theft. […] [Source]