On 1 April, Chinese officials announced they would ban all variants of the opioid Fentanyl.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on April 2, 2019

Fentanyl has been at the centre of an overdose epidemic across the US, with tens of thousands of deaths recorded each year. In 2017, the drug, along with other synthetic opioids, was responsible for almost half the 70,000 overdose deaths in the US.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that the overdose rate for synthetic opioids (other than methadone) across the US increased on average by 8% per year from 1999 through 2013 and by 71% per year from 2013 through 2017.

The opioid, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, has also been a major bone of contention in the ongoing trade war between the two nations. The US has been unsatisfied with China’s efforts to stem the flow of exports.

China had vowed to crack down on the production and export of fentanyl variants

China’s move to declare all variants of fentanyl as controlled substances sees it fulfil a promise Chinese President Xi Jinping made to US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in 2018. Previously, it had banned new variants on a case by case basis, slowing the regulation process for a drug where new forms are constantly being created.

From 1 May, Chinese manufacturers will be prohibited from making “fentanyl-relating substance”. Drug producers have been using a loophone to legally create variations of fentanyl which were not caught by the law.

A spokesperson for the Office of National Drug Control Policy said the new law will still not catch all of the precursor drugs for fentanyl and its analogues.

Trump has waged a very public war of words against China for not cracking down on fentanyl exports. Authorities believe that much of the fentanyl purchased in the US is obtained through either the dark web or Chinese online marketplaces which have been selling it openly. Huge amounts of the opioid also end up in the US via Mexico.

Last year, he said the move to ban all variants of the opioid would be a “game changer” given that China has the death penalty in place for major drugs offences.

The US President had also proposed introducing national legislation allowing for the death penalty to be used against fentanyl suppliers. “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time,” he told a crowd in New Hampshire. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.”

China blamed the US for the domestic illicit fentanyl addiction epidemic

As Chinese officials made the announcement, they also took the opportunity to fire back at the US for not doing more to prevent the masses of overdose deaths.

Liu Yuejin, Vice-Commissioner of the China National Narcotics Control Commission, told reporters that the issue was now “resolved”.

He also said the amount of fentanyl being imported to the US had been “extremely limited” and that US government claims that China had been flooding the US with the highly addictive opioid “lack evidence”.

“If the United States truly wants to resolve its fentanyl abuse problem, it needs to strengthen its domestic work,” he said.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein tweeted that the new legislation was a breakthrough. “Much of the fentanyl in the U.S. comes from China, where it has been legal to produce.,” she wrote. “That’s why I’m glad to see that China is making all fentanyl and fentanyl analogues illegal. This is a step in the right direction, and vital to driving U.S. fentanyl overdose deaths down.”

Experts say that the new legislation will not cut off the supply of illicit fentanyl

Mike Vigil, who previously ran international operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration welcomed the new Chinese legislation, but also said that “corporate greed in (the) pharmaceutical industry” and overzealous prescription of opioids had also been major factors behind the US epidemic.

“If China stems the movement of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids to the United States it would have a huge impact, but it would not stop the epidemic,” he said.

Some observers have suggested that even if the production of the drug in China can be stymied, supply dictates that another country with a lax regulation system, possibly India, will replace it as a source of illicit Fentanyl.