China has reportedly agreed to crack down on companies that manufacture and export fentanyl precursors, a key deliverable for President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign and another supply shift for people who use and sell drugs. In exchange for China’s cooperation, Biden will reportedly lift sanctions on a Chinese police forensics agency that the State Department currently has blacklisted for genocide. The announcement is expected November 15, at Biden and President Xi Jinping’s summit in San Francisco.
The deal, first reported by Bloomberg on November 13, comes as the United States is implementing a fentanyl precursor ban long coveted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and sanctioning transnational fentanyl distributors in Mexico. In October, the US placed wide-ranging sanctions on Chinese suppliers of fentanyl precursors—heightening tensions after similar actions a few months earlier.
In May, the Department of the Treasury froze US assets of Chinese pill press suppliers for allegedly furnishing transnational trafficking organizations with tableting and die mold machinery “to create superlabs in Mexico.”
The Chinese Embassy denied those claims as a “pretext the US fabricated” in order to impose sanctions, which “seriously eroded the foundation for China-US counternarcotics cooperation.” It also suggested, as it has in the past, that it wouldn’t be able to help until the US made its temporary class-wide fentanyl ban permanent, like the one China enacted in 2019.
“As China and the rest of the world strengthen control of fentanyl-related substances,” the embassy continued, “the fentanyl issue in the US has been deteriorating.”
The US HALT Fentanyl Act, which in addition to permanently banning all fentanyl-related substances under Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) would increase mandatory minimums for convictions related to those analogs, is currently pending in the Senate. But over the course of 2023, as the Biden administration has expanded its fentanyl supply chain crackdowns by imposing sanctions and regulating precursors, the surrounding propaganda has evolved.
“Synthetic drugs” is a category of substances with little to nothing in common.
It’s increasingly popular for government drug control statements to go past fentanyl and analogs, and include fentanyl precursors and “other synthetic opioids.” Tacking the word “synthetic” onto a drug’s name is a common way of making it sound scarier, which is still true even when it makes things redundant (synthetic methamphetamine) or confusing (synthetic cocaine), and these days we’re just saying “synthetic drugs” as a category of things with little to nothing in common.
“Synthetic drugs” refers loosely to what forensics departments call new psychoactive substances; the DEA tends to use the term interchangeably with “designer drugs.” The more specific meaning of synthetic drugs is that they’re knockoffs of either controlled or illicit substances, like the five “synthetic benzodiazepines” the DEA temporarily scheduled in July.
While much less understood than established drugs like heroin or methamphetamine, the imitations are vaguely legal, or until recently legal, or made from precursor chemicals that are still legal for the time being.
The best-known example is fentanyl—a synthetic opioid brought into the US market a decade ago as a substitute for less-potent opioids like heroin. As surveillance and interdiction of fentanyl increased, manufacturers moved toward analogs that hadn’t previously been relevant enough to warrant adding to the CSA.
Synthetic drugs are often implied to be as potent as the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is why the DEA, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security need more money to stop all of them from “flooding in” over the border.
The narrative attached to synthetic drugs is that because they’re grown in labs and not dependent on environmental conditions, they can be produced year-round and yield more product for less money. New ones are emerging every day, which is why the government can’t keep up with them on a drug control budget of $46.1 billion.
It got worse after July, when the White House launched its Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drug Threats. The coalition of more than 80 countries stated that the “synthetic drug threat” across the world compelled it to address not just fentanyl, but also methamphetamine, other synthetic stimulants, xylazine, tramadol, counterfeit Captagon, ketamine, nitazine analogs and synthetic cannabinoids.
In September, Biden stated that the coalition was a response to the 1,100-plus new synthetic drugs recorded over the past decade. A few days later, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Todd D. Robinson cited the same statistic, warning that, “for countries that have not yet seen these drugs, it is only a matter of time.”
Tacking a big number onto unregulated drugs is also an effective way of making them sound scarier, but only a fraction of those 1,100-plus emerging substances are actually prevalent in the drug supply. There are more than 3,000 known fentanyl-related compounds, the vast majority of which aren’t relevant to drug users. Some fentanyl analogs are more potent than the original. Others are less.
Despite media and law enforcement claims that fentanyl is being one-upped by ever-stronger versions, the Iron Law of Prohibition—harsher drug enforcement begets higher-potency drugs—doesn’t really hold up here.
For instance, the synthetic drug categories where forensics labs see the highest number of new substances are synthetic cannabinoids (K2/spice) and synthetic cathinones (bath salts, mostly). This is not the same thing as being the most prevalent or harmful substances in the unregulated supply, but the DEA and United Nations characterize them that way and so they’re the non-fentanyl drugs that end up on the drug war PSAs.
Many novel synthetic cannabinoids recorded over the past few years aren’t psychoactive at all. Some psychoactive ones can be harmful, but mainly because people have no way of gauging dose. Similarly, while some synthetic cathinones feel more like stimulants, others have a hallucinogenic effect that is not at all what someone would expect from meth or cocaine.
Synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones are the cause of many calls to poison control, but few deaths. Their greatest harms often come from increased exposure to law enforcement. Though fixation on them is disproportionate to their physical harms, it makes sense for the larger vendetta against synthetic drug production.