Explained: What is fentanyl, the deadly opioid that US wants China to keep in check?
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Explained: What is fentanyl, the deadly opioid that US wants China to keep in check?

During their recent meeting, Chinese president Xi Jinping assured his American counterpart Joe Biden that his government will take steps to tackle the supply of fentanyl, which led to over 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2021

Chinese president Xi Jinping on Wednesday (November 15) assured his American counterpart Joe Biden that his government will take steps to tackle the supply of fentanyl, which has contributed to a rise in drug overdose deaths in the country, to the US.

Chinese manufacturing companies are a source not only of the synthetic opioid itself but of precursor chemicals which can be combined to make it.

Let’s know all about the drug and why it has been a menace in the US:

What is fentanyl?

Developed by Paul Jensen in 1960, fentanyl is a highly-potent opioid that is used as an analgesic or painkiller and as anesthesia in the medical sector.

It is not recommended for mild pain and is prescribed by doctors only in cases of severe pain.

Said to be a hundred times effective than morphine and fifty times potent than heroin, fentanyl entered the illegal drug market in 1979.

It has grown in popularity since then and has been trafficked both in its pure form and in combination with other narcotics.

Like other narcotic opioids, fentanyl gives a sense of euphoria and could lead to addiction, drowsiness, hallucinations, delirium, nausea, confusion and even coma and death.

The effects of fentanyl are quick and on ingesting even a small amount can lead to overdose. Taking the opioid with alcohol and other drugs like heroin and cocaine can worsen its side-effects.

Why fentanyl is a menace in the US?

The Food and Drug Administration of the US approved fentanyl as an analgesic in 1998, but the drug continues to be illegally manufactured in the country and smuggled from Mexico and China.

According to the US Department of State, China has been the key manufacturer of fentanyl trafficked to the US since 2013.

Both fentanyl and precursor chemicals used in its manufacture are trafficked from China to the US via Mexico and Canada. They often evade detection as these chemicals are shipped through parcel delivery services.

The drug is also illegally manufactured and sold by criminal gangs in the US.

Since 2018, fentanyl and its analogues have accounted for most of the drug overdose deaths in the US. In 2021 alone, they caused 71,238 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called fentanyl an “extremely dangerous” drug.

According to the CDC, the number of people who died from drug overdose in 2021 was over six times the number in 1999 and the number of drug overdose deaths shot by more than 16 per cent between 2020 and 2021.

The US had been asking China to curb the illegal flow of “precursor” chemicals that are used in the manufacture of fentanyl.

Following a meeting with Chinese President Jinping and former US president Donald Trump, Beijing in 2019 tightened its regulatory control on fentanyl production and cracked down on the illegal supply of precursor chemicals.

China also designated fentanyl as a “controlled substance” and primarily targeted companies exporting the finished versions of the drug.

The crackdown led to fewer shipments to the US. However, Mexico became the next source of these shipments which began being routed through the US-Mexico border.

What is latest US-China agreement on?

The US now expects China to stop companies that are helping in the supply of precursor chemicals.

According to the Joe Biden government, the new agreement will involve finding strategies both to check the creation and distribution of newer illicit synthetic drugs and also reducing the supply of precursor chemicals and pill presses to drug cartels in US and China.

“We're taking action to significantly reduce the flow of precursor chemicals and pill presses from China to the Western Hemisphere," Biden said. “Under the deal, China will directly target companies that are producing those precursor chemicals. It will save lives," Biden told reporters.

The agreement reached between the two leaders during a meeting in San Francisco on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit is vital given China’s earlier refusal to hold talks on the supply of fentanyl. China had demanded that it wouldn’t hold the talks unless the US lifts restrictions on its Institute of Forensic Science.

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