The Biden administration is celebrating a promise secured from President Xi Jinping of China that his country will cooperate in efforts to reduce the production of illicit fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is roughly 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. America’s opioid crisis has claimed the lives of 645,000 citizens between 1999 and 2021. The number of fatal overdoses due to fentanyl was 23 times higher in 2021 compared to 2013.
President Joe Biden met with Xi in California this week, where the pair discussed several issues impeding their two nations’ diplomatic relationship.
In addition to security concerns and competing economic interests, the two officials discussed the production of illicit fentanyl in Chinese factories that is ultimately trafficked into the United States.
Biden neither explained how China plans to reduce fentanyl production nor gave details about the discussion.
“I am pleased to announce that after many years of being on hold, we are restarting cooperation between the United States and the PRC on counternarcotics,” he said while speaking at the Filoli Historic House & Gardens on Nov. 16.
The president said that China “took action to greatly reduce the amount of fentanyl” that was being shipped directly to the U.S. in 2019.
“But in the years since that time, the challenge has evolved from finished fentanyl to fentanyl chemical ingredients and — and pill presses, which are being shipped without controls,” said Biden. “And, by the way, some of these pills are being inserted in other drugs, like cocaine, and a lot of people are dying.”
“So today, with this new understanding, we’re taking action to significantly reduce the flow of precursor chemicals and pill presses from China to the Western Hemisphere,” he added. “It’s going to save lives, and I appreciate President Xi’s commitment on this issue.”
The increase in deaths due to illicitly produced fentanyl marks the third wave of America’s opioid epidemic. In the 1990s, the first wave of overdose deaths was attributed to the spread of prescription opioids like OxyContin. Around 2010, the number of overdose deaths as a result of heroin rapidly increased. Fentanyl, which has no smell and can be added to other drugs, began to spread around 2013.
In 2022, more than 73,600 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses in the U.S. according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, led a bipartisan coalition of senators who asked Biden to push for restrictions on the flow of illicit fentanyl from China during his meeting with Xi.
“The devastating impact of the fentanyl epidemic on our communities and families cannot be overstated,” the senators told the president in a Nov. 15 letter. “It is evident that the [People’s Republic of China] plays a significant role in the production of fentanyl making its way into our country; contributing to the alarming rates of addiction and fatal overdoses across the United States.”
“Despite the prohibition on producing fentanyl itself, pharmaceutical labs in the PRC still profit from the drug through the development and sale of precursor chemicals that are used to make fentanyl,” they stated. “Beyond supplying the chemicals to produce the deadly drug, businesses in the PRC are also assisting Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in laundering the money that comes from selling the illicit drugs in the United States… It is clear the PRC can do much more to adequately regulate the businesses that sell these chemicals to eager buyers.”
“If Mexican TCOs have a large portion of their supply chain effectively cut off by the PRC, it is likely we will see a drastic drop in illicit fentanyl being trafficked across our southern border and killing vulnerable Americans,” the senators wrote.
The letter was co-signed by five Republicans – Senators Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Rick Scott of Florida, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Dan Sullivan of Alaska – as well as two Democrats – Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana.