U.S. lawmakers have reacted with skepticism after Beijing announced a set of measures to curb fentanyl production and trafficking.
All fentanyl-related substances are now included on China’s list of controlled substances, a change from the current list of 25 fentanyl analogs and two precursors, according to a press conference held in Beijing on April 1, held jointly by China’s Ministry of Public Security, the National Health Commission, and the National Medical Products Administration.
The change, which will take effect May 1, aims to block Chinese chemists from continually manufacturing novel forms of the synthetic opioids in order to skirt Chinese regulations.
Also announced were stepped-up investigations, including requiring Chinese authorities to locate possible illegal fentanyl production in areas such as chemical industrial parks, as well as having Chinese customs officials step up the effort to check high-risk international mail.
Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); as little as two milligrams is considered a lethal dosage for most people.
Fentanyl killed 71,500 Americans in 2017, according to data released by the CDC. And China is the largest source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances in the United States, according to a 2018 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC).
However, U.S. lawmakers urged caution in expecting the latest Chinese policy to have any real impact.
“This action means nothing without proper enforcement,” U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said in a statement. “Chinese-produced fentanyl has been trafficked into the U.S. and is killing Americans, and China has had the capability to crack down on this drug trade and has not done so.”
The USCC report identified problems within the Chinese regulatory environment that have abetted the manufacturing of fentanyl, including loose oversight and “misaligned incentive structures for local governments” that “prioritize economic growth and development objective above all else.”
“We have heard soothing, but empty, rhetoric before from China’s leaders,” Smith said. “We must continue to monitor developments closely and hold Chinese officials and manufacturers accountable if they fail to take decisive action and enforce this new policy.”
Meanwhile, China has continually denied its culpability in the U.S. fentanyl crisis. Most recently, Liu Yuejin, deputy director of the China National Narcotic Control Commission, did so while answering questions at the April 1 press conference announcing the new regulations.
“The U.S. accusation lacks evidence,” Liu said. “If the United States really wants to solve its fentanyl problem, it must enforce its work domestically.” Liu said an example would be U.S. authorities providing more drug prevention education to the public.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also expressed concern about holding China accountable, saying in a statement, “We must monitor closely how China implements and enforces these new restrictions.”
Portman called on China to work better with U.S. authorities as part of the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law in November 2018.
He was among the senators who introduced the STOP Act in February 2017, to address loopholes in the U.S. Postal Service system that allowed drug traffickers, many of them from China, to ship fentanyl purchases through the postal system.
“China must also step up to provide the U.S. Postal Service advanced electronic data, so U.S. Customs and Border Protection can target, track, screen, and interdict packages suspected of containing illegal drugs,” Portman said.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also addressed the issue during an October 2017 press announcement to indict two Chinese nationals, who are accused of using the internet to sell fentanyl and other opiate substances they manufactured to drug traffickers and individual customers in the United States. They shipped drug orders through the mail.
In early March, Smith and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.). introduced the “Combating Illicit Fentanyl Act of 2019,” which would impose financial sanctions against any individuals identified as being involved with fentanyl production and trafficking. They would also be made ineligible for visas or admission to the United States.