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Manufacturing Lethal Chemicals in Bulk: China and the Current War on Drugs

Mass Production

China is one of the world’s leading manufacturers and exporters of raw pharmaceutical ingredients. China is also the leader in manufacturing harmful chemical compounds that are sold as synthetic drugs. Because of e-commerce capabilities on an international scale, manufacturers can produce and sell synthetic drugs in bulk. Synthetic drugs being mass-produced in China include: synthetic opioids, synthetic cannabinoids (synthetic marijuana), synthetic cathinones (bath salts, flakka, etc.), synthetic stimulants, all chemicals needed to produce these synthetic drugs, etc.

Chinese Drug Dealers

China is not only a major contributor to the opioid crisis, as many factories in the country mass-produce synthetic opioids like fentanyl and chemical variants of fentanyl, but China also contributes to many categories of illicit drugs. “China’s drug traffickers and chemical manufacturing facilities have taken advantage of this open market, turning the country into the leading exporter and producer of synthetic drugs. Recent incidents within the last few years have revealed China to be the main supplier of methamphetamines and other compounds that are commonly used to manufacture the drug. Just last year, over nine tons of meth were found by authorities in the small village of Boshe” (Creekmore). The DEA has named China as the main source of ingredients used by Mexican drug traffickers, who are responsible for 90% of the methamphetamine in the United States.
In testimony from Bryce Pardo, a representative of the RAND Corporation, he spoke to the Committee on Foreign Affairs directly about China’s role in the production and supply of synthetic opioids; “The introduction of illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids to U.S. drug markets presents new challenges for contemporary drug policy: The potency of many synthetic opioids increases risk to users and poses challenges for first responders, the development of novel opioids that fall outside existing drug controls complicates regulatory efforts, and their ability to be produced and shipped with ease disrupts traditional supply chains” (Pardo).
These massive Chinese laboratories are mass-producing harmful synthetic drugs, making them drug dealers on an international level. Practices of these major industrial laboratories include shipping synthetic drugs in large quantities to other countries.

China’s Drug Laws

Despite China’s own harsh drug laws, “…officials from many countries say that Chinese authorities have shown little concern for fighting what others consider to be a huge force in the international drug problem” (Creekmore). China has been more than harsh in their own approach with drugs, often consequences for drug traffickers in China carry weight of charges including the death penalty.
In a recent report from BBC News, “A court in China has sentenced a Canadian citizen to death for producing and trafficking methamphetamine. Fan Wei is the second Canadian to be sentenced to death this year. Ten others, including five foreigners, were also sentenced on Tuesday” (“China Sentences…”). In China, drug laws seem to target dealers, “Drug-dealing is punishable by death in China, and at least a dozen foreigners have been executed for drug-related offences. Many more are on death row” (“China Sentences…”).
Despite these harsh drug laws, China can’t seem to remain consistent in its efforts to regulate manufacturers or their mass-production of synthetic drugs.

Synthetic Narcotics

Synthetic narcotics, or synthetic drugs are man-made chemical compounds that produce mind-altering effects. One of the most well known synthetic narcotics is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. Other synthetic narcotics are synthetic cannabinoids, cathinones, synthetic stimulants, etc. Synthetic narcotics are made of chemicals, and produced in large quantities and made in massive manufacturing laboratories.
Synthetic narcotics have many mass-production sites in China, which cater internationally to different distributors. These mass-production sites provide an open online drug market— making Chinese manufacturers a huge player in the overall international supply chain of synthetic drugs. These synthetic drugs are marketed online as “research chemicals” and designed to evade law enforcement with slightly altered chemical make-ups.

Made in China

Because fentanyl has been banned in China, the strategy of synthetic drug manufacturers are to create similar compounds to that of fentanyl, instead creating compounds that have a slight difference in their molecular level— while still producing the same opioid effect. These new synthetics straddle the gap between Chinese manufacturing laws and the laws in the United States.
“While Chinese authorities control fentanyl, they’ve been slow to ban new analogues. And they didn’t begin restricting fentanyl’s two most common ingredients until this year, more than a decade after the U.S.” (Deprez). It’s easier to manufacture and sell ingredients and products that aid the synthetic drug trade, in China “…unlike in the U.S., anyone can sell or purchase pill presses, which dealers use to trick addicts into thinking they’re buying milder drugs like OxyContin when they’re actually getting fentanyl” (Deprez).
Other synthetic drugs produced in China follow the same strategy, making small alterations to keep the synthetic drug within law. This is how Chinese manufacturers of synthetic opioids, stimulants, cathinones, cannabinoids, etc. are evading prosecution. Technically, their practices and manufacturing is totally legal, despite the legality of substances in the countries they are shipping their products to.

The Drug Trade

The sellers (dealers) in the United States usually email Chinese manufacturers, and receive a response including a price list for over twenty five mind-altering chemicals that range in price from $1,400 to $3,600 per kilo. After a deal is reached, Chinese manufacturers will ship the synthetics out using the United States Postal Services or Fedex. Dealers in the United States, and around the world, will receive these synthetics to then sell on the street.

From Chinese Manufacturers to American Distributors

In an effort to find out more information about one of China’s largest middle-men distributors, Yan Xiaobing, police sergeant Adam Gibbons and DEA intelligence analyst John Metcalf began an investigation. After tracking Xiaobing’s online correspondences, Gibbons and Metcalf went undercover as distributors and started communicating with Xiaobing themselves.
Soon after reaching out, Xiaobing sent them “…seven shipments containing kilograms of fentanyl analogues and other synthetics. Yan labeled the packages as clothing, buttons, radios and cleaning supplies, and when Gibbons claimed that one had been confiscated by customs, Yan sent another for free” (Deprez). Yan Xiaobing ended up bring indicted on charges of conspiracy to manufacture and import twenty-two substances banned in the United States over a span of six years, beginning in 2010. From the twenty-two illegal substances, four of them are synthetic fentanyl analogues, which weren’t illegal to manufacture in China at the time Xiaobing has been accused of selling them to distributors in America.
Yan Xiaobing owns a company called 9W Technology, which has headquarters in Wuhan, China and two factories that specialize in synthesizing pharmaceuticals. Xiaobing’s company 9W Technology provides raw ingredients for pharmaceutical giants in the United States, including: Pfizer Inc., Abbott Laboratories, Merck & Co., and Johnson & Johnson. Yan Xiaobing claims he was “…a mere broker. He purchased chemicals from Chinese labs, marketed them via the internet, used freight companies to ship them and received payment via international wire” (Deprez).

Manufacturing Laws in China

Chinese manufacturers jumped at the opportunity to profit from the production and sale of fentanyl, before it became illegal in China to produce fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid which “…is potent almost beyond comprehension — and that’s what changes the game. It’s prescribed by the millionth of a gram. Two milligrams, the equivalent of seven poppy seeds, can kill”( Deprez). It’s not uncommon for Chinese manufacturers to stay in-line with manufacturing laws in China, for this is how they avoid prosecution in their own country. Despite fentanyl being banned in China, manufacturers work around the ban by producing “analogues”— which are similar chemical compounds with slight molecular differences, but the same effects as fentanyl. These analogues keep manufacturers aligned with Chinese law, which cannot keep up with the fentanyl analogues, despite banning several fentanyl-like compounds.
“Synthesis takes about a week and requires neither heat nor skills more sophisticated than following a recipe. And in recent years, rogue chemists have unearthed instructions for analogues that researchers discovered decades ago but never put into legitimate use. Sellers offer these variations before governments can outlaw them. Potency and purity vary: One dose may produce a euphoric high, while another kills immediately” (Deprez).

The Motivation to Outsource

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) exposes the monetary motivation for Chinese manufacturers of fentanyl and the like, stating that “If you bought $1,000 worth of products for retail sale…with heroin purchased in Gulfport, Mississippi, you could make a profit of $4,000. With fentanyl purchased from China, you could make a profit of up to $7.8 million” (Deprez).
Dealers often seek synthetic drugs like fentanyl strictly for profit; “When Gibbons and Metcalf went undercover, they bought a kilogram from China for $3,800, which, when turned into tablet form, could fetch on the street up to $30 million” (Deprez).

How Do Chinese Manufacturers Distribute to American Dealers?

Manufacturers use shipping services, including the government’s own postal service, to transport hundreds of thousands of doses of synthetic narcotics.

Recent Efforts to Regulate Synthetic Drugs

On May 1st, China’s National Narcotics Control Commission’s decision to regulate all fentanyl-related synthetics will go into effect, deeming the synthetics and synthetic variations as controlled substances. In theory, this will make any impending chemical modifications to synthetic opioids like fentanyl and fentanyl-like synthetics illegal to produce. Bryce Pardo, a RAND Corporation drug policy researcher, says that China may not be able to enforce this new rule, because “ ‘[Authorities] already have problems enforcing existing laws’ “ (Ingber).

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“China Sentences Second Canadian to Death.” BBC News, BBC, 30 Apr. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-48104607
Creekmore, Benjamin. “China Is the Leading the World in Exporting and Manufacturing Synthetic Drugs.” Sovereign Health, SovHealth, 6 July 2015, www.sovhealth.com/drug-addiction/china-leading-world-exporting-manufacturing-synthetic-drugs/
Deprez, Esmé E, et al. “Deadly Chinese Fentanyl Is Creating a New Era of Drug Kingpins.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 22 May 2018, www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-05-22/deadly-chinese-fentanyl-is-creating-a-new-era-of-drug-kingpins
Ingber, Sasha. “China To Close Loophole On Fentanyl After U.S. Calls For Opioid Action.” NPR, NPR, 1 Apr. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/04/01/708801717/china-to-close-loophole-on-fentanyl-after-u-s-calls-for-opioid-action
Pardo, Bryce, Evolution of the U.S. Overdose Crisis: Understanding China’s Role in the Production and Supply of Synthetic Opioids. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/testimonies/CT497.html

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