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The Department of Justice Cracks Down on Chinese Fentanyl

By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) announced the unsealing of eight indictments in early October 2023. That isn't unusual, the DoJ indicts people all the time. What is unusual are the targets of these indictments: eight China-based companies and their employees. The indictments are built on prosecutions first announced in June 2023 and are the second set of prosecutions targeting China-based chemical manufacturing companies and Chinese nationals.

Why would the DoJ target Chinese companies and Chinese nationals? The indictments concern crimes relating to fentanyl and methamphetamine production, distribution of synthetic opioids, and sales resulting from precursor chemicals – essentially accusing these Chinese companies of Breaking Bad on an industrial scale.

Attorney General Merrick Garland stopped short of blaming China for all of America's drug problems, but made it clear that the "global fentanyl supply chain … often starts with chemical companies in China." Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas echoed and expanded on the Attorney General's concerns in a press conference, then promised that the full weight of the federal government would be brought to bear in the government-wide fight against "…ruthless organizations and individuals resident in the People's Republic of China and to the cartel members who seek to profit from the death and destruction that fentanyl causes."

Secretary Mayorkas' rhetoric may sound hyperbolic if not for the sobering statistics attached to the nation's most dangerous intoxicant. As of 2023, fentanyl and its analogs are the leading causes of death for Americans ages 18 – 49. It is by far the deadliest drug threat that America has ever faced. The nation has seen a nearly 750% increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths between 2015 to 2021, and there's little evidence of the trend reversing anytime soon.

The proliferation of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and the associated sales and usage rates strongly suggest that the drug has saved thousands of lives, but so far it hasn't been enough. Overdose deaths continue to increase even among populations with easy and often low-cost access to the drug. The problem grows worse by the day – hence the government's arguably drastic actions.

Chinese Narcotics

The latest indictments mark the second step in the government's quest to crack down on Chinese companies and individuals for illegally trafficking fentanyl and the precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl. The first blow came in June 2023 when the DoJ announced that they would pursue sanctions and charges against four Chinese chemical manufacturing companies and eight of their employees and executives. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the first round of indictments "… bullyism that tramples on international law," a statement which would easily earn a high place on any list of the Top 100 Most Ironic Statements of All Time.

According to Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram, the American fentanyl crisis is fueled by a global supply chain. It starts in China, where Chinese chemical manufacturers produce and export the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and dangerous additives like xylazine and nitazenes. The chemicals are then shipped to Mexico, where cartels turn them into fentanyl, then smuggle it across the border into the US. And it isn't even that cut-and-dried. The tendrils of the Chinese chemical manufacturers stretch across the world, sometimes bringing precursors, other times carrying fentanyl and its analogs – sometimes even accompanied by boasts of their ability to avoid US customs enforcement.

The scale of the problem is massive and, given the hands-on approach taken by the Chinese government, potentially state-sanctioned or even state-supported. It's no wonder, then, that the Biden administration has directed everyone from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and just about every other law enforcement agency to put their best and brightest to work on the issue.

The Biden administration has its work cut out for it. Stamping out illegal drugs has been a losing endeavor since the first volley in the war on drugs, and none of the previous problem-substances had the implicit backing of the second-biggest economy in the world. There are at least a few rays of hope, however: Operation Blue Lotus, Operation Four Horsemen, and Operation Artemis, all undertaken by the Department of Homeland Security.

Operations Blue Lotus and Four Horsemen led to 284 arrests and stopped 10,000 pounds of fentanyl (it takes less than a gram to kill an adult man) over two months earlier this year. Operation Artemis has followed up on their success and expanded to attack the fentanyl supply chain, thus far resulting in over 500 seizures that yielded over 12,900 pounds of fentanyl precursor chemicals, finished fentanyl, pill presses and molds, and other drug paraphernalia.

President Biden has made combating fentanyl a priority of his administration. And though the history of the war on drugs, the experiences of college students and club-goers across the country, and the lessons learned from Narcos and Breaking Bad strongly imply a low probability of success, the administration hasn't given up. Though the battle may be Pyrrhic, the tasks Sisyphean, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Hopefully, this is just one more step in tackling America's fentanyl problem.

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