By Jake Howry, Research Intern, East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at Georgetown University.
Note: this article originally appeared in the East-West Center’s Asia Matters for America/America Matters for Asia initiative on September 26, 2017.
Chinese law enforcement officials in Hong Kong and Guangdong province have been assisting Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents to crack down on the manufacture of fentanyl. Fentanyl, which has become a priority for drug enforcement agents in the last three years, is a potent opioid, approximately 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be obtained legally through a prescription but is often encountered illegally as an additive in heroin or cocaine.
Recently, China and the United States have quietly increased their cooperation on drug enforcement issues, particularly with regard to synthetic opioids. In 2017, the DEA opened a new office in Guangzhou to assist in this cooperation, and in January, the head of the DEA visited China to meet with anti-narcotics and anti-smuggling officials — the first such visit in more than a decade. Reciprocally, China’s Narcotics Control Bureau has sent delegations to meet with DEA agents in Milwaukee, Boston, and Washington, DC, and just this June, Chinese officials banned the designer drug U-47700 and three other fentanyl alternatives following discussions with the United States. U-47700 was responsible for dozens of fatalities in New York and North Carolina in 2016.
The increased cooperation builds on work done through the Bilateral Drug Intelligence and Counternarcotics working groups, both of which meet annually in either Beijing or Washington to improve joint US-China drug investigations and discuss shared regulatory interests. Law enforcement — in diverse areas — represents a rare opportunity for sustained cooperation between the world’s two largest economies.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and fentanyl-related drugs are the fastest-growing cause. In 2016, county health departments in the 24 largest US cities reported 3,946 fentanyl-related deaths -- a 600% increase from the 582 overdoses reported in 2014.
The primary source of illicit fentanyl in the United States is Chinese chemical exporters. Although China already controls fentanyl and 22 related compounds, the country had not emphasized restricting its production and export prior to cooperation with US law enforcement, in part because the Chinese population has not seen a comparable rise in fentanyl-related overdoses.