China and the control of synthetic drugs: fentanyl, methamphetamines and precursors

Synthetic opioids remain the source of the deadliest drug epidemic in the United States. Since 1999, drug overdoses have killed an estimated 1 million Americans,1 an overdose lethality that has increased dramatically since 2012, when synthetic opioids from China began to meet US demand for illicit opioids.

Even though China placed the entire class of fentanyl-like drugs and two key fentanyl precursors under a controlled regulatory regime in May 2019, it remains the primary (albeit indirect) source of US fentanyl. Fentanyl programming and China’s adoption of stricter mail surveillance have created chilling effects. Instead of finished fentanyl being shipped directly to the United States, most smuggling now goes through Mexico. Mexican criminal groups source fentanyl precursors – and increasingly pre-precursors – from China, then traffic finished fentanyl from Mexico to the United States. The programming of fentanyl and its precursors in China is not sufficient to stem the flow to the United States.

There is little visibility on China’s enforcement of its fentanyl regulations, but it remains clearly limited. US-China counternarcotics cooperation remains strained and, from a US perspective, inadequate. Shifting US blame to China for the opioid epidemic and emphasizing US responsibilities in this calamity, Beijing underscores its benevolence in anti-drug cooperation. But China’s cooperation with the United States in the global counter-narcotics campaign has been contingent on the overall deterioration of geostrategic relations between the two superpowers. It is unlikely that, absent a significant warming of the overall bilateral relationship between the United States and China, China would significantly increase its anti-drug cooperation with the United States. US punitive measures, such as sanctions and drug charges, are unlikely to change that.

The structural characteristics of synthetic drugs, including the ease of development of similar, but unregulated, synthetic drugs and their new precursors – increasingly a wide range of dual-use chemicals – pose immense structural barriers to control. of supply, regardless of the political will to prohibit and regulate their use and enforce regulations.

China’s evolving position vis-à-vis the illicit production of methamphetamine in China and the trafficking of methamphetamine precursors from China provides important insights into the patterns and limits of international cooperation from the China in law enforcement. As with fentanyl precursors, China stresses that it cannot act against unscheduled substances.

China takes counter-narcotics diplomacy in Southeast Asia and the Pacific very seriously, but its operational law enforcement cooperation tends to be highly selective, self-serving, limited and subordinate to its geopolitical interests. Nonetheless, after years of rebutting international criticism for its role in smuggling meth precursors amid booming meth production in Asia, China has stepped up regional law enforcement cooperation, at least with some countries. It has also introduced stricter internal regulatory measures, even for non-scheduled drugs, and has undertaken monitoring and interdiction operations. Yet Beijing rarely acts against the upper echelons of Chinese criminal syndicates unless they specifically cross a narrow set of Chinese government interests. Chinese criminal groups cultivate political capital with Chinese authorities and government officials abroad by also promoting China’s political, strategic and economic interests.

Sino-Mexican law enforcement cooperation against trafficking in fentanyl and precursor agents to methamphetamine and synthetic opioids remains minimal. As with the United States, China rejects co-responsibility and emphasizes that controls and enforcement are matters for Mexico’s own customs authorities and other Mexican law enforcement authorities. China has maintained this posture even as the presence of Chinese criminal actors in Mexico, including in money laundering and illicit value transfers (which increasingly involve the barter of wildlife products for synthetic drug precursors), is growing rapidly.

US counter-narcotics policy options vis-à-vis China can work in multilateral forums and underscore China’s self-image as a global counter-narcotics policeman. Beijing’s self-interest in preventing the emergence of synthetic opioid use in China, even as China highlights its lack of domestic synthetic opioid use disorder. The United States can also encourage China to expand its anti-money laundering efforts, although solid progress is not expected. US indictments of Chinese companies and individuals for drug trafficking are important law enforcement tools, but will likely only strengthen China’s defensive posture and limit its anti-narcotics collaboration with the United States. United unless overall bilateral relations improve.

Given the lack of global political appetite for the listing of large numbers of dual-use chemicals, encourage the development and adoption of self-regulatory mechanisms for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries worldwide – including in China – may reduce the ease of availability of precursor agents for drug manufacturing. trafficking organizations. But the implementation of such measures and the obstacles to their effectiveness are far greater than in the case of anti-money laundering standards in the banking sector.

Alvin J. Chase