Since it first made its presence known on U.S. streets last summer with never-before-seen numbers of drug overdoses, the use and impact of high-grade animal tranquilizer carfentanil have shown no real signs of abating.
Just a few short weeks ago, Louisville, Kentucky registered a record 52 overdoses in just 32 hours and, while the drugs responsible have not yet been analyzed, experts and law enforcement strongly suspect heroin laced with fentanyl and carfentanil.
The sheer number of overdoses is not the only thing that has come to be recognized as a deadly hallmark of carfentanil. The quickness with which it fells users (it typically cripples cardiac or respiratory function before any real “high” is reached), has unfortunately been another. But a new development is finally offering hope that we may have seen the worst – at least for a while.
Starting March 1st, the Chinese government has announced it will officially ban the production of carfentanil and three related opioid analogs, helping to close a major regulatory loophole that has left America vulnerable to ultra-strong substances that, most agree, have helped perpetuate an epidemic.
Just to put it in perspective, carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl, which itself is 30-50 times more potent than heroin. An amount of carfentanil smaller than a poppy seed, if absorbed through the skin or inhaled, can cause death.
When not being used to calm and sedate elephants, it has actually been used as a chemical weapon. At the beginning of the 2000s, carfentanil was used by Russian forces to subdue Chechen separatists who took about 800 people hostage at a Moscow theater.
More than 120 of the hostages died, and many survivors were left with chronic health problems. Despite such a grizzly profile, for a period of years, it has been produced either legally – or without adequate regulation – in China. Which has led to a problem that goes way beyond Beijing…
The rapid rise of extremely dangerous synthetic opioids like carfentanil and fentanyl in the U.S. has been directly linked to China’s large chemical and pharmaceutical industries, according to a report released earlier this month by the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission. The labs have been producing vast quantities of the synthetic opioids for export with little oversight, the report says.
And with the growth of the dark web, this relatively steady production has found expression in a wealth of sales via online black markets. Helped by some still unclosed loopholes in laws governing shipping and labeling certain substances, the lethal drugs often ship virtually unchecked directly to mailboxes across the U.S.
But authorities have also been exceedingly frustrated because the majority of Chinese carfentanil still comes to the U.S. through a familiar and long-established channel: Mexican drug cartels. Cartels buy the drug in bulk from China and smuggle it north into the U.S. – which, because of carfentanil’s high yield per milligram, is less bulky and easier to transport discreetly than heroin.
Before being trafficked by dealers, it is often mixed into heroin or pressed into tablets looking like common prescription pain pills. The result has been a deluge of highly potent drugs that often pack a stronger punch than users expect – or can accurately estimate from one supply, or individual bundle, to the next. Hence, the record numbers of fatalities have been linked to fentanyl and carfentanil in communities across the country.
Though Chinese officials have disputed U.S. assertions that it is the top source of synthetic opioids, the two countries began to deepen their cooperation as America’s opioid epidemic intensified. China already regulates fentanyl and 18 related compounds, even though they are not widely abused domestically.
Officials with the DEA have touted the recent Chinese measure (which they worked to help encourage) as good news, and are hopeful that putting an end to legal manufacture of carfentanil in China will be a “game-changer” in America’s effort to find its way out of a troubling problem.
“It’s a huge announcement for us,” said DEA spokesman Russell Baer. “We’re thinking it’s going to potentially have an immediate and practical impact on drug flows into the U.S.”
But the recent ban may not be a home run in terms of its overall impact on the opioid problem here in America. First off, carfentanil and other highly potent synthetic analogs became so popular among drug dealers and producers because they extended the product, and in turn, increased profits.
The big money that carfentanil and its recently outlawed cousins represent is a big motivation for finding a way around the rules. So, don’t be surprised if nimble chemists within the Chinese Republic get creative and synthesize new compounds that evade the law. They may have some very wealthy bidders in the form of drug cartels and traffickers pressuring them to do so.
There is a historical precedent for this. After China controlled 116 synthetic drugs in October 2015, new formulations of drugs popped up, even as seizures of the banned drugs dropped in the U.S. Moreover, the new Chinese regulations don’t address the fact that the main chemical precursors used to manufacture carfentanil are still unregulated, which means it will still be relatively easy for drug trafficking organizations in Asia and the Americas to make carfentanil in underground labs.
The new ban also doesn’t address companies willing to color outside the lines, as it were. Last October, when a ban on carfentanil was already being considered and many eyeballs were on its sale, an Associated Press investigation identified 12 Chinese companies willing to export carfentanil around the world for a few thousand dollars a kilogram (2.2 pounds), no questions asked.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration expresses enthusiasm for the development, and rightly so. It cannot hurt to formally ban drugs with such deadly potential. And, since 2016, China has arrested dozens of synthetic drug exporters, destroyed eight illegal labs, and seized around 2 tons of new psychoactive substances, according to the Office of the National Narcotics Control Committee. So a more implicit crackdown is likely to force a drop in market-side supply.
But with any number of forces looking for a work-around, it will take bold and consistent enforcement – and a look towards staying in front (and not behind) new drug development – to have a positive long-term intended effect. And, of course, the U.S. must continue to address its own part in the problem: namely, a growing demand for a high that is so powerful, it often kills.
Illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids took 5,544 American lives in 2014 and increased a stunning 72.2 percent in 2015 when 9,580 deaths were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Deaths from all opioids numbered 33,091 in 2015, the last year for which complete national data are available. So…we will hope for the best. The stakes are incredibly high.