ABC News: From coast to coast in every corner of the U.S. deaths from fentanyl overdoses are soaring.
CBS News: The fentanyl epidemic in the United States killed more than 72,000...72,000 people in 2022.
USA Today: Most people who take fentanyl don’t even know they’re taking it. You can’t see it, taste it, or smell it.
Associated Press: And we know that this global fentanyl supply chain which ends with the deaths of Americans often starts with chemical companies in China.
More than 100,000 Americans died of a drug overdose last year, and at the forefront of this crisis is fentanyl. The illicit drug has been a leading killer of young Americans for the last decade, and while the U.S. has faced drug epidemics before, what we are now encountering is truly unprecedented.
While fentanyl addiction and overdose is a domestic challenge, it is also an international one. U.S. officials are looking abroad to China and Mexico in an attempt to curb abuse at home. China, because it’s the leading supplier of fentanyl precursors - the chemicals used to create the drug - and Mexico, because it is where much of that final assembly happens before the drug is smuggled into the United States.
Both countries are important in this conversation, but today, we’re going to focus on China. Particularly because the current state of U.S.-China tensions has strained cooperation in a number of areas. Controlling illicit drug flows looks to be one of them.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, China’s role in the U.S. fentanyl crisis.
Gabrielle SIERRA: Can you describe for us what fentanyl is and why it’s so addictive?
Thomas J. BOLLYKY: So fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It can produce an intense high, even with small amounts, feelings of euphoria and happiness on the individual who's taking it.
This is Tom Bollyky. He’s the director of the global health program here at the Council. He is also the founder and managing editor of Think Global Health, and he previously worked in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
BOLLYKY: If you take too much, it can lead to your body effectively shutting down. And that is what happens to people who have taken too much, which is in the fentanyl case, not hard to do given its potency. It is not that expensive to make. And it can be made from relatively common precursors, which makes it really a perfect product for smuggling into this country, in that small amounts can be used to boost the effect of narcotics. It can be easily hidden. It can be easily made and sold for a tremendous profit.
Fentanyl is actually an FDA approved drug. It was first introduced in the 1960s as a powerful intravenous painkiller. Currently, pharmaceutical fentanyl can be used before surgery, prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain after surgery or during advanced stages of terminal illnesses.
So while the purest forms of fentanyl have these legitimate medical applications, fentanyl analogues - which are the synthetic combinations of fentanyl and other drugs - are primarily what appears on the black market.
And while pure fentanyl is approximately 60 times stronger than morphine, fentanyl analogues can be anywhere from 600 to 10,000 times more powerful.
BOLLYKY: It's paired often with illegal prescription drugs, heroin typically. But it has slowly now made its way into being combined or cut into other drugs like methamphetamines and cocaine. So as it became harder to abuse legal prescription drugs, people began to shift to illicit prescription drugs. And it is in that shift, really around 2012, that you started to see the rise or the increased use of fentanyl, which now plays a major role in most opioid overdoses in this country.
ABC News: Sophia had taken a Percocet not knowing it was laced with fentanyl...Where do you think you’d be now?...I think I could have been in a worse spiral or, as far as I know, I could have been dead...Bringing awareness to this issue that that pill may not be Percocet, that pill may not be Xanax, that pill may contain fentanyl and potentially could be deadly is critical.
BOLLYKY: It's an enormous problem. Since 1999, drug overdoses in the United States have killed over a million Americans. For individuals under the age of 40, it is a leading cause of death in this country. It has been bad for some time, but it worsened dramatically during the pandemic. So to just go through the fatalities, which paint only a limited picture of what this has looked like, we went from, in 2019 just 70,000 people in this country dying from drug overdoses, far too many. That number jumped in 2020 to 93,000. That's a third increase. It jumped again in 2021 to 106,000, and then it climbed marginally again last year to 108,000.
While that data is for all deaths due to drug overdose, synthetic opioids including fentanyl make up the lion’s share. Opioid overdoses also inflict roughly $1 trillion in economic damage every year.
Unfortunately, opioid treatment is not moving fast enough to keep up with the deadly demand. Federal researchers found that in 2021, of the 2.5 million people in the U.S. with an opioid use disorder, only 20 percent received medication treatment. On top of that, the SUPPORT Act that invested $20 billion into opioid treatment and prevention in 2018, just expired last month - and Congress is not making moves to reup the bill anytime soon.
SIERRA: Can you walk me through the illicit fentanyl supply chain? Because the drug is clearly getting here somehow and it seems very accessible.
BOLLYKY: Yeah. So the dominant fentanyl supply chain into this country starts with chemical manufacturers in China. The part of China that's involved with fentanyl production or the precursors to fentanyl production are really small businesses, small chemical companies that are historically been under-regulated. After the fentanyl is produced in China, either in finished form or its precursors, it typically is shipped to Mexico, where there are two cartels that dominate the fentanyl trade. It is packaged there either on its own or cut into other drugs, which then make their way into the U.S. via the same supply chains largely that dominate the illicit drug trade or smuggling into the U.S. generally. What makes this so hard is that pure fentanyl, just such a small amount can make a big difference, that potency. There is a recent estimate by a health commission, the commonwealth commission that looked at the scale of the U.S. opioid crisis, and they estimated that just three to five metric tons of pure fentanyl is needed to supply the entire U.S. consumption of illegally supplied opioids in a year. So that is a relatively small amount and much easier for them to smuggle, particularly when it is cheaply made.
Historically, the U.S. has stayed hyper-attentive to illicit drug trade happening at our southernmost border, working with Mexican officials to dismantle numerous pill pressing and smuggling operations. More than 25,000 pounds of fentanyl has been seized at the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year. To put this into perspective, just 100 pounds of fentanyl is lethal enough to kill 18 million people, which is equivalent to the entire population of New Jersey and New York City combined.
Earlier this month the pressure yielded a firm result: a powerful faction within the Sinaloa Cartel, which the U.S. considers the top fentanyl trafficking group, reportedly banned their members from producing and selling the drug.
Policy makers in the U.S. are now calling for a counter-narcotic strategy that cuts illicit fentanyl manufacturing off at the source, which means relying on the cooperation of China.
SIERRA: Could you walk me through China’s role in all of this?
Zongyuan Zoe LIU: I would characterize China's role in the fentanyl market, into two periods, before May 2019 and after May 2019.
This is Zoe Liu. She’s a fellow for China studies at the Council.
LIU: And the reason I make this distinction is because effective on May 1, 2019, China banned fentanyl as a whole class in terms of production or fentanyl precursor chemicals, at least in the domestic market. And before May 2019, at least, information and data from U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as well as Department of Justice and other places shows that China is the world leading fentanyl export in particular to the United States. But the Chinese government always cites stories saying that, “Well, there is no official data or any indications saying that China is exporting fentanyl to the United States.” So, you see the tension there. And the chemical component of fentanyl just make it so easy to have additional derivatives. So, given that China already produces a lot of chemicals as well as a lot of money going into the Chinese pharmaceutical market. And knowing that a very important industrial policy component under the Xi Jinping regime is prioritizing life science and pharmaceuticals. Yes, China is not the go-to type of a high tech or most innovative area for drug technology breakthroughs, but it is actually the second largest pharmaceutical market in the world, second only to the United States. And some reports estimate that by 2025, the market size of the pharmaceuticals industry in China is going to be higher than $300 billion.
SIERRA: Oh wow. And overall, obviously, our relationship with China in terms of trade is huge.
LIU: Yes. U.S.-China trade relationship is perhaps the single most important bilateral trade relationship, if you will, in the world. And if we have to put a price tag on it as of last year it's about $700 billion.
And a big portion of this price tag is pharmaceuticals. Last year, the United States imported about $10 billion in pharmaceutical products from China. That made up around 10 percent of the $100 billion in total revenue generated by China’s powerful pharmaceutical sector.
LIU: Because China is already the second largest market for pharmaceuticals, there are so many - more than 5,000 of different varieties of small pharmaceutical companies that are making different types of chemicals. So, the entire supply chain becomes individual makers.
SIERRA: How does illegal fentanyl or fentanyl-related precursors get trafficked out of China?
LIU: Inside of China, they can either directly export or traffic through Hong Kong or Yunnan. Yunnan is a border town between China and Southeast Asia, and the capital city is Kunming, which has for a long period of time, has been, preferred, if you will, drug trafficking route and so is Hong Kong. So, conventionally heroin or cocaine, go through Hong Kong or Yunnan and then through Southeast Asia, the whole idea of the golden triangle. And obviously, things produced in Afghanistan or Southeast Asia like Myanmar or Vietnam or Thailand could also go through this route to flow into China. And the Chinese government cracked down on the drug inflow into the Chinese market, but they are not necessarily paying the same amount of attention to export.
BOLLYKY: China has a robust chemical manufacturing industry. Actually when I was in government, we spent a lot of time working with trying to improve the oversight of that chemical industry, which was at the time, tied for substituting dangerous products like diethylene glycol into products called excipients, things you add to small molecule pharmaceuticals to make them easier to take. And at the time, China was not regulating its chemical industry at all if the products were destined for export. China has shown little historical appetite in overseeing the export of products from that industry. The only way we made progress in the import safety crisis is that it had risen to such a scale and a high level of poisoning, and these were regulated products by the FDA, that China was legitimately worried about its brand, its ability to export into the United States. Or for other partners, using Chinese products in the supply chain to be able to export to the United States, that they felt compelled to enter into a memorandum of understanding to do something about this industry.
In recent years, the Biden administration has begun to crack down on fentanyl suppliers, developing stronger counter-narcotic strategies. Actually, our own Latin America studies fellow Shannon O’Neil gave testimony before Congress about the enormous human toll of the illicit drug trade, and suggested partnerships with our Western counterparts in Latin America to reduce the supply of illicit drugs. You check it out in the show notes.
LIU: For the very first time this year in June, our American Department of Justice indicted four Chinese companies and eight Chinese nationals for crimes related to making or trafficking or the sales of fentanyl and fentanyl precursors. Now, these four companies are based in China, and the Chinese government reaction to the Department of Justice indictment is that is there is no base of it. Because the profitability is so high, not just criminal organizations in Mexico are interested in it. Actually, normal Chinese companies, if there is opportunity for them, they are interested in doing it.
SIERRA: But the U.S. has this unique problem, and China somehow does not, correct?
BOLLYKY: That's correct. So China has no incentive on its own to do anything on fentanyl. They view it as a U.S. problem. And they will very vociferously contest representations that this is a matter of China pushing products onto the U.S.
Beijing's foreign ministry says no illegal fentanyl trafficking happens between China and Mexico. Adding ‘it’s a made in the USA problem’.
It also criticized Washington for creating obstacles in their anti-narcotics cooperation by imposing sanctions on the country.
BOLLYKY: China's incentive for doing anything on this product or around this class of drugs, is really linked to their motivation to cooperate with the U.S.more generally. And that is tied to China's sets of requests on areas that they would like to see progress on. And that's really where the relationship or the cooperation with China in recent years has broken down.
SIERRA: How about the rest of the world? Are we alone in this crisis?
BOLLYKY: We are alone in having a problem of this scale. Opioid use, or synthetic opioid use I should say has started to increase a bit in other countries, but nothing close to the scale of what we see in the United States. And that has been one contributing factor to why the geopolitics of addressing the supply of these drugs and supply of their precursors has been so hard, is that the U.S. is somewhat anomalous in the scale of the problem. The U.S. has started in more recent years, or this year really in particular, to take a twofold strategy of trying to get this back on track with China to disrupt production. One strategy has been to announce a global coalition to address synthetic drugs that the State Department is leading. Secretary Blinken, Anthony Blinken announced, that would have more than 80 countries involved in a time bound effort to try to strengthen the policies, the regulatory oversight around synthetic drugs.
U.S. Department of State: We launched the Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats in recognition of the scale of this challenge, and of the need for strong coordinated international action. In July we convened the first ministerial, joined by officials from more than 80 other countries, and leaders from over a dozen international and regional organizations.
BOLLYKY: This is an effort to try to shift what has largely been a bilateral conversation between the U.S. and China about how to do something on these products, to try to create some amount of consensus, some reputational incentive, by bringing together other partners. Can we multilateralize this, bring in more countries, create a consensus around it? So that's one part of the strategy. The other part of the strategy is the U.S. has started prosecuting or announcing indictments of those small chemical companies or individuals that are involved in the production of finished fentanyl or fentanyl precursors for shipment abroad. So it is really trying to use both a bit of a carrot and a stick here. A carrot being more of a global coalition to draw China into these discussions, try to move it from a bilateral discussion. And the stick of actually going after individuals and companies.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced more charges against eight companies and twelve of their executives in connection with fentanyl distribution. Here’s what Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference:
Forbes Breaking News: These companies advertise the sale of precursor chemicals online using different websites and social media platforms. They then ship the building blocks needed to create deadly drugs all over the world.
China hasn’t commented on the most recent indictments, but after the U.S. unveiled similar charges in June, China said these accusations could actually undermine future cooperation on fentanyl.
Shanghai Eye: The U.S. side should resolve the issue in an equal, respectful, and cooperative manner and lift sanctions on China’s anti-drug agencies as soon as possible, so as to remove obstacles to bilateral dialogue and cooperation.
BOLLYKY: I think China, when it is motivated to oversee its chemical industry, has proven itself capable of doing so. It's a large industry. This requires reaching down to lower levels of enforcement. We're talking about something rising up to the Beijing level, that ordinarily is dealt with more and on the provincial or local level in terms of oversight of these industries. You need that high level of attention for progress to be made here. But I am confident that when that attention is given, China is very capable of action in this space. They just aren't presently motivated to do so, and the geopolitics make it seem hard to imagine in the short term how that's going to shift. The U.S. has definitely asked China on many occasions. And again, their argument is that they adopted these regulations. They dispute the proof that China's industry is a dominant source of fentanyl imported into the United States. They really argue that this is a U.S. problem, a blight on U.S. society that the U.S. is trying to blame China for, because it shifts responsibility elsewhere.
SIERRA: What do you think? I mean, do you think it's fair to point the finger externally when it's a problem we haven't fixed domestically?
BOLLYKY: I think it's fair to point out that China is contributing to a U.S. problem. It is our problem ultimately, but it is one that they are making worse, and they're contributing to, and could act in a manner to mitigate or reduce. And they should be expected to do so. China has of course, historically had its own struggles with substance abuse in other settings. And in those contexts, was quite sensitive to the role of other governments in that challenge that it had.
LIU: This is not the first time that the world is facing a drug abuse crisis. And for that matter, China would cite the West of exporting opium to China as early as in the 19th century. And it was also because of the first opium war that China started to fall into these hundred years of humiliation. So, from that perspective, this is not the first time that we are dealing with drug abuse or substance abuse problem.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, China was the target of foreign opium exports, initially illicit, which spurred a nationwide addiction crisis. But after the communist revolution, a major prohibition began, wiping out most of China’s domestic production. However, after the economic reform of China’s trade policy in the 1980s, the supply route for illicit drug trafficking reopened. And by 2016, the number of officially registered drug addicts in China totaled about 2.5 million, having increased every year since the government’s first annual drug enforcement report in 1998.
In this way, China’s addiction history is a bit similar to ours. The production and sale of OxyContin by Purdue Pharma, controlled by the Sackler family, helped spur a national crisis as opioid-related deaths skyrocketed in the late-90s and early 2000s. Today, fentanyl is hitting a U.S. market already primed for abuse by the painkiller debacle.
Given China’s own history combating drug use, their government should be empathetic with the acute challenges the U.S. is facing amid this epidemic. But so far, they haven’t been too interested in helping, saying that because China doesn’t have a domestic drug issue, they shouldn’t be expected to help other countries with theirs.
BOLLYKY: I think it's, from that standpoint, reasonable to expect them to do their part to address this challenge. But fundamentally, it will not be solved unless U.S. action is taken, more support is given for treatment, more support is given to reduce the demand for these products.
LIU: I think it's very easy for us, at least for the American audience to think that the Chinese government, even if the Chinese government does not have an explicit strategy to poison American people, they must have been not doing a good job. And I think that much is pretty clear. This becomes this unifying thing that everybody can bandwagon on and blame it on China. It becomes this not just bipartisan, but also unifying at a societal level saying that this is bad. And who is the largest supplier? Who is the largest maker? It is China. The Chinese government indeed hasn't been doing a good job in terms of enforcing the substance control, especially with regard to fentanyl. Right? And especially when you think about comparing how they deal with heroin and cocaine versus the way that it controls fentanyl. But I would also want to point out that perhaps the Chinese government's priority is not there yet. They have economic problems, and then security concerns. And China so far does not necessarily have a fentanyl or opioid crisis, hence, it's not necessarily up on the government priority list.
It is unlikely that China would regulate fentanyl for benevolent purposes - moving it higher on their list of priorities in order to help the U.S. take care of a domestic issue that many feel we alone are responsible for causing and solving. But perhaps this tragic epidemic and China’s role in supplying fentanyl could open a route for partnership opportunities.
SIERRA: On the flip side, do you think that the fentanyl issue could become an opportunity for cooperation in what is otherwise becoming a chilly relationship, that it could lead to greater cooperation in perhaps other arenas?
LIU: Yes. I do think this could be at least one area for the United States and China to start, rebuild or repair their relationship, because fighting against transnational crime is of the interest of both the United States and China. This issue matters for China for two reasons, at least. The first reason is that repairing the relationship with the United States can start with something as important for the United States or as not so important for China. So, in other words, this does not necessarily take too much trouble for the Chinese government to do, given that the regulation is already there. Just regulate fentanyl the same way as other drugs, this could be a very important way to repair U.S.-China relations. Especially after several administrations of the U.S. government have pressured China to do it. And the second reason it matters for China, is actually at the Chinese household level. I'm genuinely concerned that there may be huge demand for recreational drugs inside the Chinese market, specifically because of the massive youth unemployment problem in China. The Chinese government stopped publishing or paused updating youth unemployment numbers as of last month. And the latest update suggested that youth unemployment was as high as about 21 percent. So, when you have younger people who are disincentivized to work and they are having a hard time getting a good job that they desire, it's very enticing and problematic if they seek recreational drugs as a way of escape. And you see that happen in the United States in other countries, and there is no reason to think that this is not going to happen to China. Therefore, it matters for China for domestic reasons as well. It would just become too late for the government to regulate when it becomes a crisis.
I try to be an optimist. But in this case, I'm sorry, I have to say that I'm relatively pessimistic. It is very important for international organizations, for governments around the world to recognize that this is the issue that everybody will be challenged with one way or another. And it is a good cause for the government to cooperate in order to prevent the current substance abuse crisis and the next one. Unfortunately, so far, really, we don't have effective multinational or international cooperation on drug trafficking. But perhaps at least the United States and China for the sake of restoring their relationship, for the sake of protecting the lives of their own nationals, the life of their own nationals, they are willing to take a step forward.
BOLLYKY: China, I am entirely confident, is more capable of regulating its small chemical, family owned in many cases, chemical companies, than it is presently doing around the precursors or finished fentanyl. China is waiting for the right incentives from the U.S. before it feels compelled to act. And I think it's fair for Americans to feel in the midst of an epidemic where it's devastating to families and individual lives, that that's a pretty cold calculation being done on the part of the Chinese government. I think that's fair. But fundamentally at the end of the day, people need to understand that this is indeed a U.S. problem. We need to look ourselves in the mirror and confront that, and be realistic in noting that the only way to sustainably reduce the opioid problem in this country will not come from China, it will be coming from demand side actions to reduce the use of fentanyl, to provide greater access to treatment, to reduce its potential public health consequences.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes. If you ever have any questions or suggestions or just want to chat with us, email at [email protected] or you can hit us up on Twitter at @CFR_org.
Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed on the show are solely that of the guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
The show is produced by Asher Ross and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Our associate podcast producer is Molly McAnany. Our interns this summer are Rhea Basarkar and Kalsey Colotl. Production assistance for this episode was provided by Noah Berman. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Mariel Ferragamo. Our theme music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen.
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The prolonged opioid epidemic has become the worst drug crisis in U.S. history. Its modern era has been defined by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is cheap to make and deadly to consume, even in small doses.
China is the primary manufacturer of the ingredients to make fentanyl, which often go to Mexican cartels that smuggle most of the fentanyl that reaches the United States across the southern U.S. border. While China has made some efforts to restrict fentanyl production, more Americans died from drug overdoses in 2022 than ever before, and the majority of those overdoses involved fentanyl or a similar drug. Meanwhile, geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing has continued to heat up, and experts are pessimistic that the two will be able to cooperate on curbing the flow of fentanyl.
Claire Klobucista and Alejandra Martinez, “Fentanyl and the U.S. Opioid Epidemic”
CFR Editors, "Mexico's Long War: Drugs, Crime, and the Cartels"
David P. Fidler, “Fentanyl and Foreign Policy,” Think Global Health
From Our Guests
“Reporting on Fentanyl and the Opioid Crisis,” CFR Events
Vanda Felbab-Brown, “China’s Role in the Fentanyl Crisis,” Brookings
Sadie Gurman, “Biden Administration Indicts Chinese Firms Allegedly Tied to Fentanyl Distribution,” Wall Street Journal
Shannon K. O’Neil, “The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission: Charting a New Path Forward” [PDF], U.S. Drug Policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, House Foreign Affairs Committee
Watch and Listen
“Why the U.S. is pressuring China amid a crackdown on the global fentanyl trade,” PBS News Weekend