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Fentanyl: the new drug scare from China

It's the drug that killed Prince and it has law enforcement terrified


Fentanyl: the new drug scare from China

It's the drug that killed Prince and it has law enforcement terrified


Fentanyl, AKA “China White,” was the drug that killed Prince. It’s now terrifying law-enforcement bodies around the world, and a lot of it seems to come from China.

Once, “China White” simply referred to a pure strain of heroin, but that mantle has been claimed by a new, synthetic, potent challenger.

It’s no secret China is manufacturing powerhouse; such has been the theme of a large chunk of economic commentary for decades. What is less well publicized is China’s immense heft in the manufacturing of illegal drugs. News headlines have long had China playing second fiddle to the narco barons of South and Central America, but when it comes to certain types of manufactured drugs, China is the undisputed kingpin.

Fentanyl is shaping up to be the powerful new player on the block, and the primary source appears to be the Chinese mainland. This is not just in direct shipments of drugs but also the equipment necessary for US-based manufacturers to create the drug.

It is the latest in a long line of drug scares to originate from China.

The most spectacular drug bust in recent history was the 2013 raid of Boshe, in which 3,000 soldiers had to storm a small town that had become so corrupt that its party secretary and a majority of residents were involved in the drug trade.

At the time, police were surprised to find massive stockpiles of ketamine. While its popularity was rising at the time, ketamine had not yet become as dominant a player in the Chinese drug scene as it is now. Despite the bust, in 2015, Boshe still had a reputation for producing ketamine. The ketamine problem has gotten so bad, scientific papers are analyzing the health effects of the problem and China is calling for a worldwide ban on the ketamine trade (it is also used as a horse tranquilizer).

But if anything, the ketamine problem is less severe than the newer, much more immediate threat from fentanyl. The term “fentanyl” covers a broad number of pharmaceutical compounds, which is part of the problem. It can be 50 times more potent than heroin and can often be mixed with it, which makes gauging its potency very difficult. The quantities needed for a high are so small that it is incredibly easy to fatally overdose when users underestimate how strong it is, or think they are just taking heroin—but that same potency makes bulk manufacturing an easy and attractive prospect, and the drug can be smuggled far more easily as the quantities involved are so small. Drug forums are filled with inquiries from drug users about whether fentanyl is “too good to be true”. The answer is yes and no—it is indeed as strong as promised, but the discussions invariably mention that it is incredibly easy to get yourself killed taking it.

As a Miami-based toxicology expert told local media, “People are dying at an alarming rate, especially those who believe they are using heroin when it’s in fact fentanyl. A small dose is enough to cause death.” Miami is among the US cities dealing with a rapid increase in the number of fentanyl-linked fatalities.

When authorities in, say, the US or Canada try to ban one kind of fentanyl, it is easy to make minor adaptations to the chemical formula and come up with another version of it. The fact that these and other similar drugs often have similar (albeit more potent) effects to more traditional recreational drugs means that there is a whole new wave of drugs entering the market, and users often don’t know what they are getting.

So, there’s clearly an issue with fentanyl in the US and Canada. Why is China getting a bad rap for it?

Well, for starters, when researching the story an alarming number of links came up for fentanyl suppliers (and hell no, there shall be no links provided at this part).

On one supplier website, under “fentanyl powder”, there were lists of suppliers by country. The Chinese mainland had over 71,000 suppliers listed, which didn’t include those in Hong Kong or Taiwan, which had around 1,300 at 800 respectively. The nearest competitor was India, with 4,000.


There are caveats to take into account: Many of these offerings, of course, will be diluted by suppliers down to safe levels, though shadier suppliers will instead “trust” the sellers to do this.

And there are legitimate pharmaceutical reasons why people may need to purchase fentanyl—it is particularly useful during surgery, and fentanyl patches and lozenges have been used for quite some time for entirely innocent purposes—but that is beside the point: the fact both good and bad reasons for buying fentanyl exist in tandem makes criminalizing the drug that much more difficult.


Cover image from 010lm.com