Chinese Leaders Must Stifle Fentanyl Trafficking: Senators

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By Jacquie Lee

Chinese leaders should be doing more to stem illicit fentanyl from being shipped to the U.S from China, senators said at a hearing Oct. 2.

U.S drug officials assured Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that Chinese drug enforcement officials are cooperating to curb fentanyl production, but lawmakers aren’t convinced enough is being done to stop the flow of drugs from across the globe.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid and was behind roughly 30,000 overdoses in 2017, according to the most recent federal data available. China is the U.S.’s primary source for illicit fentanyl and its ingredients, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Department. Fentanyl overdoses reached landmark levels last year, which has put additional pressure on lawmakers to stop its flow from overseas.

However, the Chinese government’s tone toward the U.S. and its drug problem has changed since the Trump administration took over, which some drug policy specialists say is hurting U.S. efforts to stem fentanyl trafficking. President Trump has been vocal about his concern regarding Chinese shipments of fentanyl and tweeted in August that the shipments were “outrageous.” President Trump’s tariffs against China have also created tension between the two countries.

The Chinese are admonishing the U.S. for its drug-demand problem “with greater force than they were a few years ago,” Bryce Pardo told Bloomberg Law. “It used to be more of a joint force effort, but now they’re saying it’s not really their problem,” Pardo said. While mid-level officials appear to still be working well together, “the kind of priority that this was given at a higher level is all gone.”

Pardo is a research associate at the RAND Corp. specializing in drug policy. The group is a centrist think tank headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif.

John Collins, the executive director of the international drug policy unit at the London School of Economics, said the Trump administration’s approach is “most likely counter productive” and “seems as much about bluster and chest thumping as it does about actually working in partnership to manage a complex global issue.”

Some Progress Being Made

The U.S. has made some headway. In April, the State Department busted five Chinese fentanyl traffickers and said it “continues to work closely with Chinese law enforcement to combat the flow of fentanyl into the United States.”

Matthew Nice, head of the International Narcotics Control Board, said the trade war and Trump’s rhetoric haven’t had any negative effects on Chinese officials’ engagement with the U.S. In the meetings he’s attended with Chinese drug agents they seemed committed to finding where illicit fentanyl is made and shutting those facilities down, he told Bloomberg Law after his testimony at the Senate hearing.

Kirsten Madison, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs for the State Department, said at the hearing that the U.S. is making progress but “there’s much more to be done.”

Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) pushed for more indictments at the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control hearing Oct. 2. Sen. Feinstein also highlighted the power the Chinese government has over its people. If Chinese leaders “said knock it off, don’t you think they’d listen?” she asked at the hearing.

But Collins stressed the tight line the U.S. has to walk when encouraging China to crack down on illegal labs or shady chemists.

“Immediate crackdowns will just bring more oppressive police actions,” including executions, Collins said. “Based on everything we know about supply side interventions a short-term crackdown in China would be very unlikely to fundamentally alter the market.” A more meaningful change would be for China to revamp its pharmaceutical regulatory system, but that would take years, Collins said. “There is no immediate easy answer to this.”

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