Expressing solidarity with the United States, which has been battling a major opioid crisis, China has decided to put a ban on lethal designer drug U-47700 and three other synthetic drugs. Often blamed for going soft on illegal drug transfers emanating from its land, China apparently gave in to the U.S. pressure to regulate synthetic opioids for causing thousands of overdose deaths every year.
During the National Antidrug Committee briefing on June 19, 2017, Deng Ming, deputy director of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC), declared to include U-47700 and the other three drugs – MT-45, PMMA and 4,4′-DMAR – in the country’s list of controlled substances with effect from July 1, 2017. In China, U-47700 has so far been a legitimate substitute for fentanyl and carfentanil, a fentanyl derivative.
U-47700, with common street names such as Pink, Pinky or U4, is a synthetic opioid painkiller which has resulted in thousands of people dying in the U.S. In Nov. 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) placed U-47700 in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which includes the most dangerous categories of drugs regulated by it. The DEA attributed such an action to several deaths in various parts of the country with New York and North Carolina reporting the highest number of fatalities. Samples taken from pop star Prince’s estate after his overdose death in April 2016 contained U-47700.
China considered to be primary supplier of synthetic opioids
In 2015, 9,580 deaths were caused due to synthetic opioids other than methadone in the U.S. – nearly one-fifth of the total drug overdose deaths. Its usage has been consistently increasing among Americans addicted to opioids. As per the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. law enforcement agencies, China is the primary supplier of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. This allegation has been refuted by the Chinese for want of strong evidence. Even then, both countries have greatly expanded collaboration efforts due to the increasing severity of the U.S. opioid crisis.
Yu Haibin, a division director at the Narcotics Control Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security in China, has stated that China is undertaking significant efforts to deal with drugs which are referred to as new psychoactive substances (NPS). These drugs, known in the market as “legal highs,” “bath salts,” “research chemicals” or “designer drugs,” are produced by altering the chemical structures of controlled substances to sidestep the law. China has now imposed restrictions on 138 such drugs.
Chinese law enforcement officials, however, continue facing challenges. As soon as a particular drug is banned, a marginally different substitute, which is theoretically legal, is manufactured and marketed online. Yu likens the situation to a race in which law enforcement officials are not able to catch up with criminals. According to him, a breakthrough is required to control such practices.
Acknowledging the importance of the ban, Justin Schoeman, Beijing-based country attaché for the DEA, states that when the Chinese officials enforce restrictions on a substance or a fentanyl-classed substance, it has a significant impact on confiscations and accessibility of the drugs in the U.S., which ultimately results in saving lives. He adds that the ban will allow both the countries to undertake joint inquiries into the chemicals, along with tracking the consignment route from its source in China to the endpoint in the U.S.
Chinese authorities putting checks in place for drug control
Yu explains that authorities have established a system whereby information on new varieties of drugs collected during customs clearances, police investigations and medical treatment will be transmitted to the national drug lab. The information will be evaluated by an expert committee which will then send alert notices to relevant agencies to help in expediting the control of new substances.
According to him, suspected dealers communicate with customers online and use the digital currency bitcoin, which allows for anonymity, to transfer money. Chinese authorities are working with Internet companies to prevent such transactions as well as online advertisements of drugs. Authorities are also necessitating real-name registration and X-rays of packages being shipped to high-risk areas in order to prevent drugs from being dispatched by post or express delivery service.
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