Skip to main content

Fentanyl was involved in 45 per cent of overdose deaths in British Columbia in 2015 and 2016.The Canadian Press

China is declaring success in shutting down the export of some synthetic opioids blamed for a raging crisis overseas, with the United States and Canada together last year experiencing more than 60,000 overdose deaths.

But the country that has been called the world's largest manufacturer of fentanyl and other powerful drugs also admits that it is being outrun by underworld chemists, who craft new formulations far faster than the law can ban then.

"My feeling is that it's just like a race and I will never catch up with the criminals," said Yu Haibin, a division director at the Ministry of Public Security's Narcotics Control Bureau.

China has already "scheduled" 138 "new psychoactive substances," synthetic drugs that it has banned. On July 1, authorities said Monday, they will outlaw another four: U-47700, MT-45, PMMA and 4,4'-DMAR.

The new measure comes amid a horrific worldwide rise in overdose deaths, growing numbers of them linked to the extraordinary toxicity of laboratory-produced chemicals that have been available for open purchase online, some on websites linked to Chinese manufacturers.

Last year, 2,458 Canadians died of opioid overdoses, the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated. Another 62,497 died of overdoses in the United States last year, the New York Times has estimated – more than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. In 2015, nearly two-thirds of U.S. overdose deaths were from opioids.

The fastest-rising causes for such deaths are fentanyl and related chemicals, synthetic drugs made in a lab whose effect is similar to heroin, but whose potency can be 100 times greater. A fentanyl overdose killed musician Prince; the drug was involved in 45 per cent of overdose deaths in British Columbia in 2015 and 2016.

Amid the stunning death toll – April, 2017, overdose fatalities in B.C. were up 97 per cent over the year before – other countries have pointed a finger at China. In February, a staff report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission labelled fentanyl "China's deadly export to the United States," calling China "the primary source of fentanyl in the United States."

China, however, has argued that it is responding as well as it can. It now bans more new psychoactive substances, or NPS, than the United Nations, Mr. Yu said. Some formulations of such lab-made drugs can kill a person in quantities little larger than the weight of a grain of salt.

Chinese authorities have targeted online sellers, boosted X-ray inspections of what they consider "high-risk" packages leaving the country and created an experts committee that can quickly test and ban new substances. Since Oct. 1, 2015, they have seized 1,753 kilograms of "new psychoactive substances," according to statistics released Monday as China defends against global censure for the manufacture, within its borders, of drugs that are decimating overseas communities.

Drugs added to the banned list quickly vanish, officials said. Before creating an initial list of 118 illegal synthetic drugs in 2015, those specific formulations made up 95 per cent of the NPS discovered in parcels for export. Today, they make up just 17 per cent.

"The export of new psychoactive substances has been effectively curbed," said Deng Ming, the deputy general secretary of China's National Narcotics Control Commission.

"We know there is a problem and we are now exploring more effective ways to deal with it," added Mr. Yu, describing efforts to co-ordinate with Internet companies to expunge advertisements for synthetic drugs.

The country's efforts have won international plaudits. "When China controls a substance, an NPS or a fentanyl-class substance, it has a huge impact on the seizures and the availability in the United States," said Justin Schoeman, the Beijing attache for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Take carfentanil, a substance used as an elephant tranquilizer – so powerful a single kilogram can produce 50 million lethal doses. China banned it in March. Since then, it has "barely appeared in customs examinations," Mr. Deng said.

But as the ratio of banned substances discovered by Chinese authorities has fallen precipitously, the quantity of "non-scheduled" synthetic drugs has rapidly risen. Such drugs can be variants of narcotics whose slight molecular differences mean they are not formally proscribed.

Chinese officials have partnered with foreign police services, including from Canada, to fight drug production. But they said they did not know whether their efforts had done anything to slow the overall export of lab-made drugs. "There is no data," Mr. Yu said.

The use of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, and websites hosted overseas, has made enforcement difficult, he said.

The speed with which chemists evade the law has also illuminated one of the weaknesses in China's crackdown: Beijing outlaws individual chemical formulations. Canada, by contrast, bans types of drugs – such as fentanyl – as well as derivative modifications, which could be analogues or salts.

The international community has also pressed China to ban chemical ingredients, or precursors, used to make narcotics such asfentanyl.

China is analyzing a further 30 substances for possible addition to its existing banned list.

Not among them, however, is W-18, a potent research chemical that Canadian police suspect is manufactured by Chinese labs.

Last June, Ottawa made it illegal to produce, possess, import, export or traffic W-18, a chemical produced as a potential painkiller by a University of Alberta laboratory decades ago. Early tests showed it to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine, enough to spark worry that it could be even more deadly than synthetic opioids – although health authorities warn that its effects remain poorly studied.

Never commercialized, W-18 has been revived in recent years amid a rush of laboratory-produced drugs. It has been discovered in drug raids across North America, and also identified in the bodies of overdose victims. Canadian police and health authorities have said they believe it is made by Chinese labs.

But Chinese narcotics authorities say they have not found W-18 in tests of more than 2,000 samples of so-called "new psychoactive substances" taken from across China since 2015.

"We have not detected any element of W-18," said Hua Zhendong, deputy director of the China National Narcotics Laboratory.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe