Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Pressure is mounting on China as many believe it is failing to do enough to stop the flood of fentanyl into the United States – contributing to the opioid epidemic which claimed more than 27,000 American lives in 2017 alone.

In late October, US President Donald Trump signed into law new legislation to address the problem and the US Department of Justice hosted its first “National Opioid Summit” on October 25, with US Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivering the keynote address.

Trump also moved to eliminate a loophole that has previously enabled Chinese drug dealers and distributors to mail their drugs into the US without giving details on either the sender or the contents of the package. This did not apply to packages handled by FedEx, UPS and other private carriers as they must provide such information in advance to customs inspectors.

Prior to the summit, US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that “this is a real crisis. The Chinese government has the ability to stop this if they want to. We believe they should want to do that.”

Chinese drug labs

A growing number of US politicians agree that it is now time to take the necessary steps to ensure the arrest and punishment of people working in Chinese drug labs and operating huge distribution channels that lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans.

As well as the steps being taken by the Trump administration to address the problem, New Jersey Congressman Jeff Smith (R), who chairs the Global Health Subcommittee, has introduced legislation aimed directly at China. Smith is making it clear that further Congressional action is urgently needed to get Beijing to exercise more control over its huge underground industry.

It is unusual that a Republican has co-sponsored legislation with avid support from Democrats, given the partisan divide that has gripped Washington in the recent past. And it is the latest overt sign that the US Congress is growing increasingly frustrated and agitated, not only by China’s apparent failure to address the problem in a meaningful and effective way, but it shows that Congress is disappointed and unwilling to simply stand by as the Trump administration treats China softly over this huge nationwide problem.

More and more members of Congress are convinced that the US needs to confront Beijing over this matter. Smith is by no means the lone voice on Capitol Hill attempting “to hold both government officials in China and Chinese private citizens accountable.”

“Synthetic fentanyl produced in China and exported to the US is ravaging our communities,” Smith said in a statement issued on October 26. “Although China would like to shirk responsibility and call this a purely a demand-driven phenomenon, the fact is Beijing is not doing enough to stop the supply.

Call for joint effort

“The recent proliferation of synthetic opioids like fentanyl has driven a sharp increase in overdose deaths, impacting Americans of all walks of life. In New Jersey, we have the highest opioid overdose death rate among all states for individuals 35 or younger. And fentanyl produced in China is helping drive the epidemic.”

This legislation calls for the creation of “a joint effort by the Secretaries of State and of the Treasury to identify each person and government official in China involved in fentanyl production and trafficking into the US. Once identified, those persons can be sanctioned by the US under such policies as the Global Magnitsky Act.”

Smith is a strong supporter of the Act and how it has given the US a new vehicle for cracking down on human rights violations across the globe.

“Are we using existing tools to hold bad actors in China accountable? We have tools, such as the (Act), which targets corrupt officials and human rights abusers. Perhaps it is time we start thinking outside the box and use something like Global Magnitsky to ensure that corrupt Chinese officials and narco-traffickers are held to account,” Smith said on September 6 when he chaired a hearing before his subcommittee entitled “Tackling Fentanyl: The China Connection.”

Momentum has been building steadily since the hearing, which heard from the US State Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, the RAND Corp think tank and a prosecutor, among others. Witnesses said that while China may be showing signs of cooperating with the US by cracking down on domestic fentanyl production, recent US Justice Department indictments involving Chinese citizens from places such as  Wuhan and Shanghai are ample evidence that China is not doing enough to solve the problem.

“China is one of the world’s top producers of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine and fentanyl, as well as the chemicals used to process heroin and cocaine,” Paul Knierim, the Deputy Chief of Operations at the Office of Global Enforcement for the DEA, told the hearing.

Bryce Pardo, an analyst from the Rand Corp think tank, told the hearing that Chinese regulations were deficient and “a lack of oversight and government and corporate accountability” had triggered “a large increase in the number of unlicensed or semi-legitimate chemical manufacturers or distributors” as well as an increase in “opportunities for corruption.”

In his opening remarks to the National Opioid Summit, US Attorney General Sessions stated that he agreed that China is not doing enough and that it needs to do more.

‘China must do more’

Some suggest that China may be showing signs that it is delaying discussions over the scale and scope of its anti-fentanyl campaign due to the escalating trade war with the US.

“Whereas China has gone to war with other drugs that have a demand in China – such as methamphetamine – it has conspicuously failed to launch a similar crackdown on fentanyl, which has no demand in China,” Smith said.

“I applaud the efforts of our law enforcement agencies to counter the spread of fentanyl, but China must do more. This bill will hold China accountable for its bad behavior and sanction those responsible for this global health crisis.

“In order to effectively combat this epidemic, we need Congress and the administration working together to hold accountable those who promote and profit off of drug addiction. With this bill, we will do just that.”

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