The US believes factory-produced opioids – powerful painkillers
increasingly abused by US citizens – are being made in China and sold from
One of the main ones is fentanyl – 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine –
which is only approved in the US for severe pain arising in cases like
treatment for cancer.
China, while not denying there’s a problem, has hit back at claims that
most illegal fentanyl is from China.
A senior Chinese official, Yu Haibin of the National Narcotics Control
Commission, said there was “no proof” of this, and described President
Trump’s comments and “unacceptable” and “irresponsible”.
Mr Yu had earlier spoken about growing drug demand in the US as the real
There’s no doubt a lot of these chemicals are produced in China – although
in exactly what quantities is impossible to tell.And despite the rhetoric,
China has been taking some steps to address the problem.
These synthetic drugs are cheap to make, are sold on the internet and sent
by post, either directly to the US or to trafficking networks based in
On arrival at their destination they can be mixed in very small amounts
with other drugs, especially heroin, to increase their potency.
“Fentanyl is potentially lethal, even at very low levels. Ingestion of
doses as small as 0.25mg can be fatal,” states the US Drug Enforcement
It’s also relatively easy to alter its chemical structure to produce
similar substances – known as fentanyl analogues – to bypass legal controls.
“The countless possibilities to create new compounds by small changes in
chemical structures pose a growing challenge to international control of
the opioid trade,” states the UN Office for Drugs and Crime.
Growing concerns – not just in US
The US authorities are increasingly worried about opioid abuse, and have
now put all fentanyl-related products into the most dangerous class of
In testimony before Congress, Assistant Secretary of State Kirsten Madison
described the situation as the most “severe drug crisis” the US has ever
She said that in 2017, more than 40% of the 72,000 drug overdose deaths in
the US involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Health statistics from Canada show that last year, 72% of deaths related to
opioid abuse were believed to involve fentanyl or related substances – up
from 55% in 2016.
Europe’s drug monitoring agency the EMCDDA, which covers the EU plus Turkey
and Norway, said in a report this year that “the number of synthetic
opioids has grown rapidly in Europe since the first substance was reported
The China connection
US officials are unequivocal that China is the main source for fentanyl and
In October 2017, the US authorities announced the first ever indictments
against two Chinese individuals for conspiracy “to distribute large
quantities” of fentanyl as well as other opioids.
Katherine Pfaff, spokesperson for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, told the
BBC that interceptions from the US postal system, information from people
on the ground, and tracking cyber footprints, leads them to believe a
“significant amount” comes from China.
The European drug monitoring agency report states: “It appears that most
shipments of new fentanyls coming into Europe originate from companies
based in China.”
However, it added that there have also been some examples of illegal
production by laboratories in Europe.
And, although the Chinese authorities don’t officially accept that most
fentanyl is produced in China, they have taken some action.
Martin Raithelhuber, an expert on synthetic drugs with the UN Office on
Drugs and Crime, says China now has restricted more than 150 chemicals that
can be used to create synthetic drugs.
“They have been quite active in introducing national controls,” he adds.
The DEA’s Pfaff told Reality Check that China is “recognising the problem”
and that there’s an “on-going, strong working relationship” with the
Regulation and corruption
But do the Chinese have a problem regulating their large and rapidly
growing pharmaceutical industry?
Drugs policy expert at the Rand Corporation in the US, Bryce Pardo,
describes their regulatory capacity as “limited”.
“Gaps in regulatory design, the division of responsibility between
provincial and central governments, and lack of oversight and government
and corporate accountability, increase opportunities for corruption,” he
“I think it is fair to say that a lack of regulatory capacity, perhaps
regardless of the letter of the law, certainly limits their ability to
control the industry,” says John Collins, head of the International Drug
Policy Institute at the London School of Economics (LSE).
The other problem is that as more controls are introduced, new chemical
substances are produced to get around them.
“The lessons from other countries suggest that effective regulation and
enforcement does not ensure the absence of an illicit market,” adds Collins.
“In the presence of a demand, supply finds a way.”
He believes a more comprehensive approach to managing the overdose crisis
in the US is needed, not simply relying on control of supply from abroad.
And that is also part of China’s argument – that the US needs to address
its growing demand for such drugs, rather than just blaming Beijing.
BBC News (2018, 24 September) Fentanyl crisis: Is China a major source of
illegal drugs? Retrieved from: