By Pat Anson, Editor
China has been an "incredible partner" in cracking down on illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
"When a particular drug is identified as being a problem, China has been an incredible partner in helping to stop the production of drugs like fentanyl in China," Price told The Associated Press during a visit to China this week.
A closer look suggests otherwise. Mexican drug cartels continue to smuggle alarming amounts of fentanyl – usually produced in China -- into the U.S. and Canada, where it is often mixed with heroin or turned into counterfeit painkillers.
Consider these recent news reports:
The Mexican military last Saturday seized 63.8 kilograms of fentanyl (over 140 pounds) at a checkpoint just yards from the U.S. border near Yuma, Arizona. The newspaper El Financiero reported the powdered fentanyl was found hidden inside a tractor trailer rig, along with nearly 30,000 tablets made with the chemical. The shipment had an estimated street value of $1.2 billion – by far the largest seizure ever of illicit fentanyl.
A week earlier, DEA agents confiscated 30,000 more counterfeit pills at a traffic stop near Tempe, the largest seizure of fentanyl tablets in Arizona history. The Tucson News reported the drugs were connected to the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The fake pills were designed to look like oxycodone -- an "M" and a "30" were stamped on the blue tablets.
"This massive seizure removed thousands of potentially lethal doses of this powerful narcotic off the streets," said DEA Special Agent in Charge Doug Coleman.
It doesn’t take much fentanyl to kill someone – the chemical is 50 to 100 more potent than morphine. Many addicts looking for a high or pain sufferers looking for relief have no idea what they’re buying on the black market. Experts say a single dose of fentanyl as small as two or three milligrams can be fatal.
New Jersey’s Attorney General said this week that a suspected drug dealer arrested in March with 14 kilograms of fentanyl – less than a quarter of what was seized in Mexico last weekend -- was enough “to kill more than half the population of the state.” The “super potent” fentanyl, believed to have been shipped from China, “could have yielded upward of five million lethal doses," according to Attorney General Christopher Porrino.
“Fentanyl is commonly mixed with heroin or cocaine for sale on the street, or is sold in powder compounds or counterfeit pills disguised as heroin, oxycodone or Xanax,” Porrino’s office said in a statement. “Given the tiny size of a lethal dose, drug users are dying because dealers are careless about how much fentanyl they put in such mixes and pills."
Federal prosecutors say a drug ring busted earlier this year in San Antonio, Texas produced hundreds of thousands of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl and sold them over the Internet to customers all over the country. DEA agents believe several people may have died after ingesting the pills, which were disguised to look like oxycodone, Adderall or Xanax.
According to the San Antonio Express News, at least 70 packages of fake pills being shipped through the U.S. Postal Service were intercepted. Another 120 packages ready for shipment were seized when the drug ring was finally shutdown, along with four commercial pill press machines. Prosecutors say the fentanyl was obtained from China.
“I’ve never seen a case like this,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joey Contreras. “The quantities they’re able to distribute, and in anonymity, are staggering.”
China has promised before to crackdown on illicit manufacturers of fentanyl. In February, China’s National Narcotics Control Commission announced that it was “scheduling controls” on four fentanyl-class substances. The move came after several months of talks with U.S. officials and was widely praised by the DEA.
“These actions will undoubtedly save American lives and I would like to thank my Chinese counterparts for their actions on this important issue," Acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said in a news release.
President Trump’s opioid commission is taking a dimmer viewer of China’s efforts. In its interim report to the president last month, the commission warned that illicit fentanyl was “the next grave challenge on the opioid front” and that stronger efforts were needed from China to stop fentanyl smuggling.
“We are miserably losing this fight to prevent fentanyl from entering our country and killing our citizens. We are losing this fight predominately through China. This must become a top tier diplomatic issue with the Chinese; American lives are at stake and it threatens our national security,” the commission said.