United States President Joe Biden said Wednesday China had re-committed itself to tackling the flow of fentanyl – a synthetic opioid responsible for over 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the US last year.
The agreement – arrived at as Mr Biden and China’s Xi Jinping met in San Francisco on the side-lines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit – is key because Beijing had earlier refused to hold talks on the supply of fentanyl unless the US lifts restrictions on its Institute of Forensic Science.
Apart from providing anti-drug agencies a boost, the agreement will also help Biden ward off attacks from the Republicans, who have complained the US isn’t doing enough to stop the fentanyl trade.
Fentanyl is likely to be a major issue in next year’s presidential election either way. If it is stopped Biden will claim a win in the war on drugs. If it is not then the Republicans will have more ammo.
US-China Fentanyl Agreement
Basically, after initiating crackdowns five-six years ago on companies exporting finished versions of the drug, China is now expected to also target those making precursor chemicals.
The White House said the renewed agreement will also focus on evolving strategies to not only counter the creation and distribution of newer illicit synthetic drugs but, critically, also to reduce the diversion of precursor chemicals and pill presses to drug cartels in the United States and in China.
“It is going to save lives,” Mr Biden said, hours before Mr Jinping said China “deeply sympathises” with American people for “the suffering fentanyl has inflicted upon them”. However, in a caveat underlining the mutual distrust, the US is expected to “trust but verify” China’s actions.
Working backwards from Wednesday’s deal, last month six American senators – three Republicans and three Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – visited China.
The fact Mr Jinping did not outright refuse talks on fentanyl gave the American side hope, but the forensics institute issue remained a stumbling block, global media reports indicated.
There were also murmurs of disagreement, including when Chinese government spokespersons said the Americans ought not to blame others for their own policy failures.
The senators’ visit was shortly after the US government indicted and charged eight Chinese companies and numerous executives for importing the precursor chemicals.
US-China Fentanyl Story
Mexico and China are the primary sources for fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances trafficked directly into the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. However, nearly all the precursor chemicals come from China and are often falsely packaged to avoid detection.
In 2018 the Chinese government announced a series of steps to combat the export of fentanyl.
This was after a meeting between Mr Jinping and then US President Donald Trump. Crucially, China said it had “agreed to designate fentanyl as a controlled substance” and, over the next few months, the impact of crackdowns across China became evident, and supply to the US fell drastically.
Beijing’s crackdown widened to include variants, like carfentanil, after it was found manufacturers were exploiting loopholes by marginally altering the chemical structure of the opioid.
The Chinese, after urging from Mr Trump, moved to block these loopholes. Since then, though, the shipments are being increasingly routed via the Mexico border. The US is already in talks with Mexican officials to shut down this route.
What Is Fentanyl?
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more so than heroin, and was approved by the US’ Food and Drug Administration as an analgesic (pain relief) in 1998.
On the street it is also called China Girl and China Town.
Fentanyl, like other opioid analgesics, leads to euphoria, pain relief, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, nausea, and vomiting, as well as urinary retention, pupillary constriction, and respiratory depression.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labelled fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs “extremely dangerous”, warning many may even be unaware their drugs are laced with it.
According to the CDC, some of the signs of a fentanyl overdose are constricted pupils, weak or slow breathing, choking or gurgling sounds, a limp body and discoloured or cold, or clammy, skin.
With input from agencies
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