China: a new ally in the war on opioids

Jun 22 2017

China: a new ally in the war on opioids


On June 19, China announced it is banning a designer drug called U-47700 and three others, responding to U.S. pressure to help control synthetic opioids, which have fueled a rapid increase in overdose deaths in the United States.

U-47700 had been sold in China as a legal alternative to fentanyl and derivatives such as carfentanil, the Associated Press reported. Its usage has been growing among opioid addicts in the U.S.

Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration listed U-47700 in the category of the most dangerous drugs it regulates, linking it to dozens of fatalities, most of those in New York and North Carolina. Some of the pills taken from Prince’s estate after the performer’s 2016 overdose death contained U-47700.

The DEA has long said that China is the top source country for synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its precursors, assertions the Chinese government has disputed, citing lack of solid evidence. Still, the two countries have stepped up cooperation as the U.S. opioid epidemic has worsened.

Deng Ming, deputy director of the National Narcotics Control Commission, said that U-47700 and three other synthetic drugs — MT-45, PMMA, and 4,4′-DMAR — would be added to China’s list of controlled substances as of July 1.

Yu Haibin, a division director at the Ministry of Public Security’s Narcotics Control Bureau, told the AP that China has been making “big efforts” to deal with drugs known as new psychoactive substances. NPS are a range of drugs that have been designed to mimic established illicit drugs, by slightly tweaking the molecular structure of those existing illegal substances. These substances are made by modifying the chemical structures of controlled substances in order to get around the law, and China has now restricted 138 of them.

However, as soon as one substance is banned, chemists create slightly different and technically legal alternatives and then market them online.

“My feeling is that it’s just like a race and I will never catch up with the criminals,” Yu told a news conference. “Actually, we just want to make a breakthrough in dealing with this.”

Yu said authorities have set up a system in which intelligence on new types of drugs gathered during police investigations, customs clearances and medical treatments would be sent to China’s national drug lab. An expert committee will then assess this information and alert relevant agencies, to facilitate the control of new substances, he said.

Yu says authorities are working with internet companies to try to stop communication and transfers of money between dealers and customers, and the advertising of drugs on websites.

To combat drugs being sent by post or express delivery service, authorities were carrying out real-name registration requirements and X-rays of parcels being delivered to “high-risk areas.”

At a news conference, Justin Schoeman, Beijing-based country attache for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said “I can tell you that when China controls a substance, (new psychoactive substances) or fentanyl-classed substance, it has a huge impact on seizures and availability in the U.S., so thank you very much.”

“The controlling of substances in China certainly saves lives in the U.S.,” he added.

He added that China’s banning of additional substances means the U.S. and China can now conduct joint investigations on those chemicals, including the tracking of packages from dealers to their customers in the U.S.

U-47700 is a synthetic opioid, a fast-proliferating class of drugs that have caused thousands of deaths in the United States. In 2015 alone, there were 9,580 deaths due to synthetic opioids other than methadone, accounting for almost a fifth of all drug overdose deaths.

China’s cooperation with the DEA is not a new phenomenon, says agency spokesperson Katherine Pfaff. She says the DEA has long had a presence in China and that for the past four or five years, the relationship between the agency and Chinese officials “has been the best it has ever been.”

The cooperation may stem from efforts by DEA personnel there to educate Chinese officials on the problems new psychoactive substances (NPS) have caused in the U.S.

Last January, acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg visited visited China for the first time in more than a decade, to discuss banning more of the synthetic drugs being manufactured by chemists there and illegally sold in the United States. Rosenberg visited Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Beijing at invitation of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and its Narcotics Control Bureau, after a Chinese delegation visited Washington in September, 2016 .

To augment its existing office in Beijing, the DEA has opened a second China office within the consulate in Guangzhou, according to CNN

China responded to earlier U.S. requests by controlling 116 NPS in 2015, which helped trigger a significant decline in NPS cases across the country, Pfaff notes.

Most of the synthetic opioids causing problems in this country come from outside the U.S., Pfaff points out. Still, “it’s important to remember there are countries that provided synthetics to the United States as a legal means of making money and supplying a demand,” Pfaff told “Until recently, the synthetics that we are referring to were not illegal or controlled; therefore, they saw the venture as a way to make a profit.” 

As communication between the two countries continues, we are now at a place where some of the more deadly synthetic opioids have been controlled, thereby transferring risk (risk of arrest) not only to the buyer, but now to the source of the product. This will inevitably lead to saving numerous lives and reducing overdoses here in the United States.”