The US cracks down on Chinese companies over fentanyl trafficking

The US has been grappling with a major crisis known as the opioid crisis.

The US cracks down on Chinese companies over fentanyl trafficking
Plastic bags of fentanyl are displayed on a table at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection area at the International Mail Facility at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. November 29, 2017. Reuters/Joshua Lott/File Photo

The backstory: The US has been grappling with a major crisis known as the opioid crisis. Opioids are a group of drugs used to reduce pain, and their use has been taking a major toll on the nation. From 1999 to 2020, more than half a million lives have been lost to overdoses.

One of the big culprits behind this crisis is fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid. Basically, it's a lab-made painkiller that's incredibly potent and effective. It's so strong that it's considered one of the most powerful drugs around. We're talking almost 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

A big problem with it, though, is that it makes its way into other drugs, sometimes without users even knowing it. Plenty of street drugs are cut with fentanyl, which is usually cheaper, and that can lead to even more unintended overdoses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2021 alone, the US saw 107,000 overdose deaths, with over 70,000 linked to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

More recently: In April, the US Justice Department went after big shots in the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, including a faction led by El Chapo's sons. They were accused of running a large-scale fentanyl trafficking operation, with Chinese chemical companies identified as the suppliers of the chemicals needed to make the drug.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a historic visit to China, the first by a Secretary of State in five years. During the trip, they discussed cracking down on the flow of chemicals used in making fentanyl. They even mentioned possibly forming a working group to tackle this issue head-on.

Last Friday, Blinken also announced plans to have a virtual ministerial meeting on July 7. The plan is to create a Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats. The US wants to unite countries to fight against the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs like fentanyl.

The development: The US Justice Department just slapped criminal charges against four Chinese chemical manufacturing companies and eight individuals. They're in hot water for allegedly trafficking the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl that's causing all that chaos in the US. This marks the first time the US is going after Chinese companies involved in selling those fentanyl ingredients. These Chinese companies allegedly promoted the chemicals on their websites and social media and then sold them to some criminal groups, like the Sinaloa drug cartel. Among the accused are Hubei Amarvel Biotech and individuals named Qingzhou Wang, Yiyi Chen and Fnu Lnu (also known as Er Yang). The prosecutors are going after them for fentanyl trafficking, importing precursor chemicals and money laundering.

In response, China's foreign ministry has called on the US to stop using fentanyl as an excuse to go after Chinese companies and citizens. The country wants those arrested released immediately. The Chinese embassy spokesperson also voiced concerns about the negative impact this could have on China-US counter-narcotics collaboration due to the US exercising "long-arm jurisdiction" over China.

Key comments:

"China urges the US side to stop dumping blame and to stop smear attacks on China," said China's foreign ministry in a statement.

“I promised that the justice department would never forget the victims of the fentanyl epidemic,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement on Friday. “I also promised that we would never stop working to hold accountable those who bear responsibility for it.”

“Just one of these China-based chemical companies shipped more than 200 kilograms of fentanyl-related precursor chemicals to the US for the purpose of making 50 kilograms of fentanyl, a quantity that could contain enough deadly doses of fentanyl to kill 25 million Americans,” said Garland.

“The incident was a well-planned entrapment operation by the US side, which seriously infringed upon the legitimate rights of relevant enterprises and individuals,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in the US. “China strongly condemns it.”

“Fentanyl poses a singular threat, not only because the smallest doses can be lethal, but because fentanyl does not occur in nature. It is entirely man-made,” said Lisa Monaco, the deputy attorney general, on Friday.