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How Fentanyl Ingredients From China End Up in the U.S. (theatlantic.com)
65 points by Thorondor 57 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments

I used to work in chemistry a while back and the trend at the time was outsourcing chemical precursors from China. In the late 1990’s it was rare to buy from them, but by mid-2000’s most of our chemicals came from China. They literally sprouted a whole chemical industry pretty quickly.

Send drug precursors just came along with that capability. Want to order a starting material for Lipitor? Sure! What about fentanyl itself? Sure! Just another chemical.

The unusual thing is that it used to be India that was the source for generic drug company's APIs, with the basic bulk materials coming from China.

Either China ramped up its domestic game and/or India itself outsourced to China.

My impression (limited it might be) is that a lot of drug companies went to India to manufacture their own drugs. As you mention, India already had some experience through their domestic generic drug industry.

China built out their own outsourcing outfits somewhat on their own and then US manufacturing shifted to them after.

I feel like the whole "disrupter selling the imcumbent's people opiates" [1] is a recursive theme in statecraft.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_opium_in_China

Except China isn't forcing us to buy opium at gun point.

Couple things that would be interesting to find out..

1. What percentage of the company's total fentanyl pre-cursor sales are for legitimate medical purposes?

2. What percentage of total orders are fentanyl pre-cursor orders?

Hard to assess scale without this information.

*The people downvoting don't realize there are legitimate uses for fentanyl or what? It's a prescribed painkiller (fyi).

The downvoters probably aren't aware that in fact Hong Kong's entire existence is due to a British war solely over China's refusal to trade opium.

Methods change but does strategy?

England didn't force Chinese citizens to become drug addicts. That came from mass poverty. And the English were happy to get all that silver back for all the tea they had been buying.

As for the miserable poverty England had, they were happy to have their own citizens drink themselves to death.

And when the emperor said enough is enough, the british took a page out of Americas playboy with dealing with japan and trade. But went step further.

And now we have the second largest economy pulling out victimhood, and Americas grand old party is using the same playbook.

Get in power, play a victim, and crush hard working people under your heel.

I think you have your dates wrong.

The Chinese, after repeated requests through diplomatic means and appealing directly to Queen Victoria, seized all the opium the foreign merchants were bringing into Canton, destroyed it, and then refused to compensate them. This lead to the British Navy interceding. This happened in 1839, 13 years before US Admiral Perry opened Japan with gunship diplomacy.

Don’t get me wrong, both of these actions are abhorrent. But mid 19th century Britain needed no guidebook on how to impose its will

If you go down the chain far enough, almost anything is a "drug precursor" -- This is why a skinny trashy white person in possession of acetone and iodine can be charged with manufacturing methamphetamine.

Fentanyls are pretty simple molecules to make, and banning the "precursors" mentioned here basically means one needs to choose a slightly different synthetic route, or make a slightly different drug.

As for the Chinese company profiled in the article, it is literally the same as any other successful Chinese company in every aspect -- Except for the part where they explicitly discussed Fentanyl and demonstrated that they knew it was a common drug of abuse. But, without personal first hand exposure, they might well consider fentanyl to be the same as cannabis or ketamine, also widely reviled "drugs of abuse" in China.

So, a charitable reading of this article just comes off as uncritical fearmongering. A cynical reading frames it as a "war on drugs" / "war on China" piece.

> This is why a skinny trashy white person in possession of acetone and iodine can be charged with manufacturing methamphetamine.

Has this actually happened? You need a few more ingredients in the chain before you get meth out the other end...I would hope a jury would know this.

If this is indeed a major source for ingredients for illegal fentanyl reaching the US, why hasn't it been cut off at that point, through diplomatic channels between the US and China?

Edit: This is an entirely sincere question, and seems an obviously relevant followup to the article, and important to US society plagued by opiate abuse. I realize, after downvoting, that my question could be read multiple ways, but I'll leave it as I initially asked it.

It may not matter at this point.

It's so cheap and scalable to produce and so potent, I figure importers "Got while the gettin was good" and already moved containers of precursors or active ingredients state-side.

It could take decades to wash out.

Meanwhile the focus seems to be on ultra-small scale importers bringing in a few grams through the mail.

The kingpins love this distraction, because it just cuts out their competition by removing consumers' direct access to manufacturers.

Excellent point. I would bet anything that the chinese government gave their oligarchs ample amount of time to move a large buffer of inventory before the ban went into effect.

"I asked about the two most popular fentanyl precursors, NPP and 4-ANPP, but I already knew that my timing was bad. In late 2017, China announced that it would schedule both of them, and Yuancheng immediately stopped selling them. (The law went into effect on February 1, 2018.)"

It seems the major sources were banned, possibly need to schedule the other precursors that are less known if they don't have legitimate uses.

Or it just gets pushed underground. Just because there was a lot of heat from publicly selling it, it still may be manufactured. Along with a price increase to make up for the lost volume.

The whole point of precursors is to buy something that is multi-use or that one could do the paperwork for to import legitimately before diverting.

We might be dealing with this for a while. The whole enforcement regime continues to be diverted around, so now we just have ultra-potent stuff that is basically unsafe to handle but the only choice.

At that point just import fentanyl. The precursors reduced legal risks on the manufacturing side. Take that away and they might as well just make the real drug.

Sometimes the precursors are legal if you have the right paperwork (e.g. importing it for some industrial process).

And, other time, the final product has a much higher molecular weight, so you get more bang for your smuggled kilo or m^3 bringing precursors.

4-ANPP+NPP is basically the Betty Crocker Baking Mix synthesis of fentanyl. Most anyone importing it at >=50 gallon drums has the expertise to make it via another route. Who knows, maybe the economics of bulk chemicals are such that a different synthetic route is a better value.

They just ship it to Mexico and Columbia.

Sorry to nitpick, but it is spelled: Colombia (with an "o", not a "u").

EDIT: Forgot to add: Can you cite a piece that substantiates the claim of these precursors being routed via Colombia?

Some of it gets shipped to mexico, where it is mixed with other 'product'.

That was one of the points of tension raised by the Trump admin. In addition to buying US ag, they would also stop fentanyl from coming in. According to the admin, their efforts in both have been lackluster.

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