President Xi Jinping of China agreed to regulate all forms of fentanyl in the People’s Republic during negotiations with President Donald Trump at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires this weekend. The move was touted as a “game changer” by Trump. But in China, as elsewhere, the control of fentanyl is easier desired than achieved.
On December 1, President Xi agreed to designate “all fentanyl-like substances” as controlled drugs, in what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called “a wonderful humanitarian gesture.”
The White House celebration is premature. For one, it’s unclear what the new regulations will actually look like. The White House press release announced that “people selling Fentanyl to the United States will be subject to China’s maximum penalty under the law.” But Geng Shuang, deputy director of China’s Foreign Information Department, stated in his press release that “it is still too early” to say what the change will “mean for China’s policy going forward.”
According to Geng, the government will “start working to adjust related regulations.”
But any policy changes will face significant hurdles.
As of 2017, China listed 25 “fentanyl substances” as controlled. But once a fentanyl analogue is placed on the list, manufacturers can quickly alter their chemicals to make them “technically legal and permissible to export,” noted a US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report from late November.
“Fentanyl has been controlled in China. This is nothing new,” said Bryce Pardo, an associate policy researcher for drug policy at the RAND Corporation.
“My feeling is that it’s just like a race and I will never catch up with the criminals,” said Yu Haibin, a division director at the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Narcotics Control Bureau, in a June 2017 interview with the Globe and Mail.
Trump, in typically xenophobic fashion, has previously blamed Chinese fentanyl exports through the US postal system for the US overdose crisis.
But as Beau Kilmer, co-director at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center tweeted, “we don’t have the data infrastructure to generate a ballpark figure” of how much illicit fentanyl even comes to the US from China.
Government steps to control drugs rarely result in benefits, and any potential positive outcomes from President Xi’s move are at best vague and remote.
“I think this is just an announcement from the Chinese side” said Geng. “The specific work still needs further development.”
Photograph: AP News