Against such a tragic backdrop, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday virtually brought together representatives from 84 countries -a list that included Mexico, the main gateway for the potent substance into the United States, but not China, one of the three axis of its global manufacturing, trafficking and consumption- in a coalition to increase cooperation in the fight against this and other synthetic drugs.
Blinken sought in his opening speech to raise awareness among his counterparts with a graphic metaphor. “the United States is a canary in the coal mine when it comes to fentanyl”. In other words, what is happening here with fentanyl will soon happen, he suggested, in the rest of the world. “Having saturated the United States market, transnational criminal enterprises are turning elsewhere to expand their profits”, he continued; “If we don’t act together with fierce urgency, more communities around the world will bear the catastrophic costs that are already affecting so many American cities, so many American towns.
Blinken promised to organize more expert sessions, as well as a face-to-face meeting during the UN General Assembly, scheduled for September. Also speaking at Friday’s meeting was Ylva Johansson, the EU’s European Commissioner for Home Affairs, who pointed out that fentanyl is not yet as pressing a problem in Europe as it is in the United States.
In addition to the lethal opiate, on the agenda of the virtual meeting were ketamine, a potent anesthetic, legal for use in the United States; MDMA, which is in its last phase of approval by the FDA for use in patients with disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder; the analgesic tramadol; methamphetamine, which was the protagonist of the second-to-last narcotics crisis in the United States and captagon, prescribed for attention deficit disorder, narcotics and narcolepsy. Blinken painted a map of the distribution of these drugs in his remarks: “Every region is experiencing an alarming rise in other synthetic drugs. In Africa, it’s tramadol; in the Middle East, fake Captagon pills; in Asia, Ketamine.”
Easier to manufacture and transport
Compared to other substances, synthetic drugs are easier to manufacture and transport illicitly. Thousands of fentanyl pills can be hidden in the space occupied by a bale of heroin. In 2022, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) seized 50.6 million fake pills and 4,500 kilos of fentanyl powder, the equivalent of “more than 379 million potentially lethal doses”; more than enough, therefore, to wipe out the entire U.S. population (some 330 million).
America’s relationship with fentanyl dates back to the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies like Purdue flooded the market with pills called Oxycontin, which they marketed with the deception that they were non-addictive. When doctors stopped prescribing them to a legion of addicts, they rushed to heroin. Fentanyl, a drug invented in the 1960s that revolutionized anesthesiology, entered the scene around the middle of the last decade. At first, it arrived from China, a country that banned its export in 2019. Today, the precursor substances necessary for its manufacture are marketed from the Asian giant in Mexico, whose drug traffickers learned the formula, as well as the machines necessary to manufacture the fake pills.
US-China relations and the fentanyl war
During his recent visit to China, the issue was one of Blinken’s priorities. The Treasury Department recently issued sanctions against 17 individuals and companies in the Asian country accused of profiting from the business.
The pandemic exacerbated the situation. In 2020, overdose deaths grew by 20%, to 91,799 cases. In 2021, there were 106,699, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, up 16%. The following year they exceeded 110,000. The issue has also become another front in the political war between Democrats and Republicans, whose more extremist members are calling on Joe Biden’s administration to intervene militarily in Mexico to dismantle the drug trafficking groups operating in the country, similar to the way it did with the Islamic State.
On the eve of the U.S.-led conference, U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, Todd Robinson, had said China needed to do more to disrupt illicit supply chains, but it was still unclear if it would join the meeting.
“We’ve invited China,” Robinson, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, told reporters on a telephone call.
“We don’t have any indication at the moment that they’re going to participate.”
Although Beijing “had not engaged” with U.S. officials on the issue in recent months, Washington still actively sought its help, he added.
The gathering is part of a Biden administration policy to curb the highly addictive painkiller fentanyl that has fueled the country’s opioid crisis.
“This isn’t about blame, and this isn’t about pressure,” Robinson said.
“Part of the reason we’re trying to bring this coalition together is to engage other countries in their efforts against the supply chain, and part of their responsibility is going to be engaging with the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” he said, using the formal name of the country.
China is a major producer of the chemicals required to make fentanyl, which is frequently smuggled over the U.S.-Mexico border.
Amid a deterioration in ties between the rivals, China has not been helpful in cracking down on the flow of fentanyl precursor chemicals or on money laundering related to trafficking, U.S. officials say.
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said it was willing to work with other nations.
“China is ready to work with other countries, including the United States, to establish co-operative relations featuring equality, mutual respect and trust, and win-win cooperation,” the spokesperson, Liu Pengyu, said in a statement.
“We are willing to carry out counter-narcotics co-operation to share experience in drug control and jointly tackle the drug problems.”
Beijing has said Washington should stop using the fentanyl crisis as a pretext to impose sanctions on Chinese companies, and state media have repeatedly said addiction and demand for the drug are U.S. domestic problems.
“We hope the U.S. side will take concrete action to address China’s concerns and create conditions for more bilateral and multilateral cooperation on drug control,” Liu added.
Almost 80,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2022, the Centers for Disease Control says.
The U.S. Justice Department filed criminal charges in June against four Chinese chemical manufacturing companies and eight people over accusations that they illegally trafficked the chemicals used to make fentanyl.
Additional Research: Dele Ogundahunsi