Pubdate: Mon, 26 Dec 2016
Source: Altus Times, The (OK)
Copyright: Altus Times 2016
Author: Erika Kinetz, Gillian Wong (Associated Press)


BEIJING -- U.S. assertions that China is the top source of the synthetic
opioids that have killed thousands of drug users in the U.S. and Canada
are unsubstantiated, Chinese officials told the Associated Press.

Both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the White House Office
of National Drug Control Policy point to China as North America's main
source of fentanyl, related drugs and the chemicals used to make them.

Such statements "lack the support of sufficient numbers of actual,
confirmed cases," China's National Narcotics Control Commission told DEA's
Beijing field office in a fax dated Friday.

In its letter to the DEA, which the commission also sent to AP, Chinese
officials urged the U.S. to provide more evidence about China's role as a
source country.

It's a point the state-run China Daily newspaper drove home publicly in an
article this month stating that made-

in-China carfentanil was not the cause of overdose deaths in the U.S.

DEA officials said their casework and investigations consistently lead
back to China. DEA data also shows that when China regulates synthetic
drugs, U.S. seizures plunge.

"China is not the only source of the problem, but they are the dominant
source for fentanyls along with precursor chemicals and pill presses that
are being exported from China to the U.S., Canada and Mexico," said
Russell Baer, a DEA special agent in Washington.

Beijing is concerned enough about international perceptions of China's
role in the opioid trade that after AP published investigations
highlighting the easy availability of fentanyls online from Chinese
suppliers, the narcotics commission made a rare invitation to a team of AP
journalists to discuss the issue at the powerful Ministry of Public
Security, a leafy complex just off Tiananmen Square at the historic and
political heart of Beijing. They also provided responses, in writing, to
AP's questions.

U.S.-China cooperation is essential for mounting an effective global
response to an epidemic of opioid abuse that has killed more than 300,000
Americans since 2000. The presence of fentanyl, a prescription painkiller
up to 50 times stronger than heroin, and related compounds in the U.S.
drug supply began to rise in 2013, after dealers learned they could
multiply profits by cutting the potent chemicals into heroin, cocaine and
counterfeit prescription pills.

Even as the U.S. Congress considers legislation that would punish opioid
source countries, no government agency has produced comprehensive data on
seizures of fentanyl-related substances by country of origin.

The national database on drug seizures overseen by DEA does not require
reporting by source country and may not accurately reflect seizures of all
fentanyl-related compounds. Baer said it didn't even have a "fentanyl"
category until around two years ago.

It also takes time for forensic chemists to identify drugs seized from the
field, which means fentanyl-related samples may get initially logged
incorrectly as other drugs. "In those cases, the field agent may not, and
I think it's fair to say usually does not, revise or amend the initial
seizure," Baer said. He added that DEA is trying to improve its
data-collection methods.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy declined to comment
or to provide data that would back up the U.S. assertions.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it had data on fentanyl seizures
by country of origin only for 2015: Nearly two-thirds of the 61 kilograms
(134 pounds) of fentanyl seized last year came from Mexico. The rest, 35
percent, came from China.

DEA officials say Mexican cartels are key bulk suppliers of fentanyl to
the U.S., but portray Mexico primarily as a transshipment point. U.S.
authorities have tracked shipments of fentanyl precursors from China to
Mexico and the U.S., but many appear legitimate and are diverted to the
black market upon arrival, Baer said.

Mexican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were
not authorized to be quoted, said fentanyl and its precursors were coming
from China. Only two labs trying to produce fentanyl from scratch have
been located in Mexico in recent years, with others apparently taking
simpler steps to turn precursors into fentanyl, the officials said.

Mexican authorities did not immediately respond to requests for data on
fentanyl and fentanyl precursor seizures by country of origin.

Still, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence indicating that China plays
an important role in the fentanyls trade and, despite disagreements about
data, Chinese authorities have been proactive in trying to stop their
manufacture and export.

It is easy to find Chinese companies online offering to export synthetic
opioids, the AP found in investigations published in October and November.
In response to that reporting, China's narcotics commission said it was
scrutinizing 12 opioid vendors the AP identified, along with other
companies that advertise fentanyl analogs. They said they also found three
American companies advertising fentanyls, and noted that some vendors use
servers based outside of China. China's National Narcotics Laboratory has
analyzed 25 fentanyl-related samples since 2012, the vast majority of
which were being smuggled by mail to the U.S. or Europe, the commission

In some cases, China has enacted faster, more comprehensive changes to its
drug control laws than much of the rest of the world.

The commission said China has taken a precedent-setting approach to
synthetic drug regulation, controlling dozens of substances that aren't
abused domestically. At the same time, Beijing has struggled to get the
international community to reciprocate. China has twice asked the United
Nations to place the drug ketamine under international control. Ketamine,
also known as Special K, is widely abused within China but prized as an
essential anesthetic across the developing world by the World Health
Organization and others.

"China looks forward to further practical action taken by the U.S. to
jointly promote the international control of ketamine," the narcotics
commission said in written remarks to AP.

Beijing already regulates fentanyl and 18 related compounds and is
considering designating four more: carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, acryl
fentanyl and valeryl fentanyl, the narcotics commission told AP. A formal
review began in October, and the process can take up to nine months. In
the meantime, the commission said it had warned Chinese vendors and
websites that carfentanil, a weapons-grade substance so lethal it has been
called a terrorism threat, and other analogs can harm human health and
should not be sold.

That message sent a ripple of anxiety across the internet and caused some
to start pushing alternative opioids, like U-47700, the AP found in
conversations with a dozen companies advertising drugs online. "Friend,
fent is illegal in China, it is dangerous for us," wrote one vendor.

Baer said DEA is actively investigating U.S.-based vendors who use dark
net markets to sell fentanyl and related compounds, as well as Chinese
companies that use U.S. servers to sell carfentanil.

But the extent to which those U.S. companies are merely retailing
made-in-China drugs is not clear. Baer said the DEA doesn't believe
fentanyl is mass-produced in the U.S., though authorities have uncovered
mom-and-pop pill press operations.

One of them was run by a 28-year-old in Utah, who was busted late last
month with a pill press, piles of powder and cash, and nearly 100,000
pills laced with suspected fentanyl in his Cottonwood Heights home.
According to the criminal complaint, the young man hired people to accept
packages shipped to their homes, which they'd hand over unopened.

The packages came from China.
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