The United States recently imposed sanctions and launched indictments against numerous Chinese companies and individuals who are believed to be involved in the illegal trade of the highly addictive drug fentanyl. The charges and sanctions have drawn strong condemnation from China. The US Attorney General, Merrick Garland, emphasized that the global fentanyl supply chain, which leads to the deaths of Americans, often begins with chemical companies in China.
Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid that is commonly used in the medical field for pain management, particularly for cancer patients. Even a small amount of as little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal. It is estimated to be 100 times more potent than morphine and nearly 50 times more potent than heroin. While fentanyl is approved for medical use, it is responsible for causing the deaths of more than 150 people in the US each day due to overdoses related to synthetic opioids.
There are two forms of fentanyl: the pharmaceutical version, prescribed by doctors and used in hospitals and pain treatment centers worldwide, and illegally manufactured fentanyl. Illegally manufactured fentanyl is primarily responsible for the majority of overdose deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that overdose deaths from illegal synthetic opioids were 23 times higher in 2021 compared to 2013. This illicit form of fentanyl can resemble any other powdered drug, often leading to it being mistaken for heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamines. Drug dealers frequently mix fentanyl with other substances to enhance the addictive nature of the high.
In 2021, more than 106,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US, with two-thirds of those deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The high potency, low-cost production, ease of smuggling, and the fact that new users have a lower tolerance to the drug contribute to the devastating effects on individuals. While long-time drug users may build up a tolerance and require higher dosages, new users who unknowingly consume fentanyl-laced pills are more likely to suffer lethal overdoses. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers 2mg of fentanyl to be a lethal dose, which is smaller than the tip of a pencil.
The effects of fentanyl on the body are significant. It is the most potent opioid pain reliever used in medical treatment, being roughly 100 times more potent than morphine. The drug binds to the body’s opioid receptors, affecting the brain’s control of pain and emotion. Prolonged use of opioids can result in the brain’s reduced responsiveness to the substance and difficulty experiencing pleasure outside of the opioid. Side effects of fentanyl use include extreme happiness, mental confusion, memory issues, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, unconsciousness, breathing difficulties, chest wall tightening, an irregular heartbeat, constipation, decreased bowel mobility, and increased risk of heart attack or failure, immune system suppression, anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
The widespread availability, high potency, low production costs, and ease of smuggling make fentanyl a favored choice among illegal drug manufacturers and dealers. The four Ps of fentanyl – potency, production, profit, and packaging – contribute to its popularity on the black market. Fentanyl is roughly 50 times more potent than heroin, making it highly addictive. It is relatively cheap to produce, with raw ingredients readily available. The manufacturing process requires minimal cultivation, making it easy to produce in remote locations. The high profit margins of fentanyl make it an attractive commodity for illegal drug trade. Additionally, its concentrated form allows for easy packaging and smuggling in small vehicles or packages, making it harder for law enforcement to control the distribution and impact of the illicit fentanyl economy.
The US sanctions and indictments against Chinese entities involved in the illegal fentanyl trade reflect a significant effort to tackle the opioid crisis in the country. By targeting the supply chain at its source, the hope is to disrupt the flow of this deadly drug and protect American lives. However, it remains to be seen how effective these measures will be in curbing the illegal trade of fentanyl and reducing overdose deaths.