By Pat Anson, Editor
China is finally taking steps to stop the production of illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid blamed for thousands of drug overdoses in the U.S. and Canada.
China’s National Narcotics Control Commission announced this week that it is “scheduling controls” against four fentanyl-class substances – carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, valeryl fentanyl, and acryl fentanyl, starting on March 1, 2017. The announcement came after several months of talks between the Chinese government and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Fentanyl-related compounds represent a significant and deadly component of the current opioid crisis. These actions will undoubtedly save American lives and I would like to thank my Chinese counterparts for their actions on this important issue," said Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg in a news release.
"It shows China's attitude as a responsible big country," Yu Haibin, the director of the Office of the National Narcotics Control Committee, told the Associated Press. "It will be a strong deterrent."
DEA officials say China’s move is a potential “game-changer” in the opioid epidemic, because it will close a loophole that allowed Chinese laboratories to manufacture fentanyl and its chemical cousins legally.
The substances were then shipped to Mexico before being smuggled into the U.S. and Canada, where they were often mixed with heroin or used in the manufacture of counterfeit oxycodone and other painkillers. Traffickers also purchased pill presses from China, according to the DEA.
“The counterfeit pills often closely resemble the authentic medications they were designed to mimic, and the presence of fentanyls is only detected upon laboratory analysis,” the DEA warned in a report last summer.
Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is legally prescribed in lozenges and patches to treat severe pain. Carfentanil is so potent it is used by veterinarians as an anesthetic on elephants.
Illicit fentanyl is mixed with heroin to increase its potency, but dealers and buyers may not know exactly what they are selling or ingesting. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Ohio and other states have reported an “alarming surge” in fentanyl related deaths. In some states, the number of deaths from illicit fentanyl now exceeds those from prescription opioids.
Two public health researchers have speculated that a “malicious actor” could be behind some of those deaths.
“These highly potent pills could have been created by a malicious actor to intentionally poison consumers or attract the attention of law enforcement to redistributors,” wrote Traci Green, PhD, Boston University School of Medicine, and Michael Gilbert, MPH, Epidemico Inc., in a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine.