‘We Are Shipping To The U.S.’: Inside China’s Online Synthetic Drug Networks

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Sacks of coal byproducts await sale at a manufacturing site in northwestern China’s Ningxia region, where Benjamin Chen works as a salesperson.

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Inside, narcotics investigators found a prolific fentanyl production operation — all contained within two small rooms with «product drying on tape in sheet cake pans,» said a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official posted in China. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly to a reporter about his work on the case.

In November 2018, Chinese police — acting on a tip from the U.S. — seized more than 26 pounds of fentanyl and 42 pounds of other drugs from the lab and eventually sentenced nine people from the city of Xingtai in Hebei a year later in a major Chinese-U.S. joint drug takedown. The Xingtai government declined to be interviewed.

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Fentanyl drug traffickers are sentenced in court last year in Xingtai in northeast China’s Hebei province. The court sentenced at least nine fentanyl traffickers in a case that was the culmination of a rare collaboration between Chinese and U.S. law enforcement to crack down on global networks that manufacture and distribute lethal synthetic opioids.

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A manufacturing site where Chen works as a salesperson.

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Shots — Health News
Fentanyl As A Dark Web Profit Center, From Chinese Labs To U.S. Streets

«We ship a special way, can ensure you can receive the goods. We have the product in stock,» a salesperson for Hebei Speedgain Biotechnology Co. Ltd. said via WhatsApp in May. The company describes itself as a maker of drug and pesticide intermediates.

The salesperson said the company also sold a banned fentanyl precursor, at $1,100 a kilogram.

A salesperson at a different company, Shunwei Biological, based in Shijiazhuang, said in May that it was still selling two fentanyl precursors and a range of synthetic cannabinoids to customers in the United States. «We are shipping to the U.S. and have success with deliveries to your country and others,» the salesperson said.

One possible way around the screening is for vendors to ship large volumes of illicit synthetic opioids disguised within lawful bulk cargo to the U.S., where a distributor can then fulfill individual American orders domestically. In 2017, the DEA arrested a Chinese national living in Massachusetts and operating such a warehouse of synthetic opioids and other drugs obtained from China.

«It could be that the mail shipments are down in part because what has happened is that the vendors have moved to shipping it through cargo to the United States. … That data is not being collected because all the seizures that I see are only from [U.S.] ports of entry,» said Bryce Pardo, who researches drug policy at Rand Corp.

Drug supply chains are changing in other ways as traffickers engage in a cat-and-mouse game to evade law enforcement.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic temporarily paralyzed the trade. Many ingredients behind synthetic opioids are made in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first discovered and which authorities completely locked down for more than two months.

«The cutoffs were temporary,» said Louise Shelley, a George Mason University professor who researches fentanyl supply chains and studied the impact of the pandemic on sales. «The problem has not ended. [Fentanyl sales] are still going on the open Web.»

You push on a balloon, it pops somewhere else.

In the U.S., meanwhile, more than 40 states have reported spikes in opioid-related deaths this year, according to the American Medical Association. Fentanyl, which is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, is a leading cause of overdoses.

Mexican cartels have also begun distributing fentanyl products, using ingredients largely made in China. «Now the role of China — and the growing role of India — is sending precursor chemicals directly to cartels in Mexico to produce the fentanyl in clandestine labs,» the DEA’s Donahue said. «You push on a balloon, it pops somewhere else.»

More Chinese vendors are moving to password-protected websites, where access is given only to trusted customers. They are moving away from public social media accounts, for security reasons and because many companies, including Instagram and Reddit, have implemented rules that make it harder for illicit drug vendors to operate. Chen’s Facebook accounts were shut down last year, but he has created a new account.

Analysts said an entire new class of synthetic opioids — a family of compounds called benzimidazoles — is now showing up in U.S. drug busts and leading to overdose deaths. The drugs are completely different in chemical structure from fentanyl, but experts warn they can be just as deadly. Initial seizures of the drugs come from mailed packages originating in China, where their production is not controlled.

«It’s still a small amount, but it’s alarming because benzimidazoles could be the kind of new pathway illicit chemists have identified, a new chemical structure that’s not controlled yet and that’s harder to detect because it’s new,» said Pardo of Rand Corp. «At the end of the day, these chemists will figure out new things to get around these laws.»

NPR Beijing bureau producer Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann contributed reporting from New York.

  • fentanyl precursors
  • fentanyl analog
  • synthetic opioids
  • opioids addiction
  • drug trafficking
  • opioid epidemic
  • opioid
  • fentanyl
  • opioids
  • China

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