Explained: Why US is targeting China in its crackdown on painkillers

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In a bid to crackdown on what is being called an ‘addiction epidemic’ that killed a record 1 lakh Americans last year, the United States has imposed strict sanctions on Chinese painkiller manufacturers. Under a new executive order by President Joe Biden, US authorities will now be able to directly target foreign drug traffickers.

The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on four Chinese companies, including one owned by Chuen Fat Yip, who is believed to be one of the world’s biggest producers of anabolic steroids. US law enforcement authorities have said that China is a major source of the opioid fentanyl — a powerful painkiller — as well as the ingredients needed to make it and other synthetic drugs.

The government’s latest actions “will help disrupt the global supply chain and the financial networks that enable synthetic opioids and precursor chemicals to reach the United States”, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

What do these sanctions mean for foreign drug traffickers?

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed two new executive orders to combat drug trafficking in the country. Under these new orders, the US government imposed new sanctions on Chinese companies trading ingredients used to manufacture the opioid painkiller fentanyl, as well as several criminal gangs from South America.

The sanctions will block any assets held by these entities in the United States and will also criminalise further transactions in the country. Biden’s executive orders allow the US to target drug makers directly rather than going after cartels and criminal groups.

According to the Treasury Department, sanctions have been imposed on 25 entities and individuals benefiting from drug trafficking. Amongst these entities is Wuhan Yuancheng Gongchuang Technology Co Ltd, run by the notorious Chinese drug manufacturer Chuen. The state department even announced a reward of up to $5 million for information about Chuen’s whereabouts.

The list of entities also includes Primeiro Comando Da Capital, or PCC, one of Brazil’s most powerful criminal groups, known to traffic large quantities of cocaine in Europe. Notably, in 2019, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security had added several suspected PCC members to a list of organisations ineligible for a US visa.

Why were these sanctions needed in the first place?

According to data released by the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics, around one lakh Americans died of drug overdose last year — a grim never-seen-before milestone that health officials linked to the Covid pandemic.

The US has witnessed a steady rise in overdose deaths over the last two decades. Last year, these deaths jumped nearly 30 per cent, CDC said. To put this in perspective, drug overdoses now surpass deaths from car crashes, guns and even flu and pneumonia, AP reported.

Several of these deaths were caused by fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine, but twice as potent. While it is a prescription drug, it is also manufactured and used illegally. Generally, fentanyl is used to treat patients suffering from severe pain, particularly after surgery.

According to a report published by the US Drug Enforcement Agency last year, most of the raw materials and chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl are sourced from China. The report also included India in the list of countries quickly becoming a source of illicit painkillers.

According to health experts, drug dealers are known to mix fentanyl with other drugs — one of the primary reasons behind the rising number of deaths due to methamphetamines and cocaine.

Several drug cartels are also known to source ingredients from China to mass produce fentanyl and other drugs, like meth.

In 2019, facing tremendous pressure from the US, China imposed a ban on fentanyl.

How did Beijing respond to the sanctions?

Soon after the sanctions were announced, China was quick to slam the US’ decision. “These kinds of erroneous acts, in which one side is sick but forces the other to take the medicine, is not constructive,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters.

Beijing has already taken steps to control the production of fentanyl and the chemicals used to make it.

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How has the US previously dealt with drug trafficking?

In the past, the Treasury Department combated the drug trafficking crisis in the country largely based on the 1999 Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act and an earlier 1995 executive order based on older cartel structures with more easily identifiable leaders.

In early 2020, President Donald Trump announced a ‘war on drugs’ — echoing President Richard Nixon who in 1971 labeled drug abuse as “public enemy number one”. President Obama adopted a different approach — his plan was to expand treatment options and to make rehabilitation programs more accessible.

In 2017, Trump began pressuring China to crack down on fentanyl. During a diplomatic trip to Beijing, he said he would make stopping the “flood of cheap and deadly” fentanyl “manufactured in China” a “top priority”. The next year, he signed a legislation that boosted federal funding for drug treatment. But he has also been criticised for several serious missteps, including his decision to defund the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).





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