An unfortunate truth is that many Americans know someone who is addicted to drugs or has perhaps even overdosed. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, overdose deaths have been on the rise, and fentanyl holds most of the blame. This substance has been the leading cause of drug overdose fatalities in the United States since 2016, with that number growing each year. Claiming 36,359 lives in 2019, the synthetic opioid, supplied by China and drug cartels, is being sold on American streets. The drug is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, requiring only a small amount to trigger an overdose. Although fentanyl can be bought on its own, more commonly purchased street drugs — such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and synthetic Xanax — are being laced with it to “increase the high” and lower the cost. Drug cartels from Mexico and South America incorporate fentanyl into their products, putting just enough in each batch or pill to boost the high but not kill the consumer so demand remains or increases.
Suppliers: China & Cartels
While legal fentanyl for prescription medical use is manufactured and distributed in the U.S., most overdoses come from illicit sources of this highly controlled substance.
Clandestine fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances are sent directly or indirectly to the United States from China through dark web commerce. Similarly to the U.S., fentanyl is a controlled substance in China, with only five authorized producers. However, drugs similar to fentanyl were, until two years ago, freely available and designed to replicate its effects. Under international pressure, the Chinese government did ban the production and sale of fentanyl analogues in May 2019, but while the trade of these “replica” drugs decreased, it did not disappear. Developers and sellers of fentanyl analogues and precursor chemicals pivoted toward the black market and selling on the dark web. Many Chinese suppliers also started selling different chemicals, ones that are not banned, that can be combined to make fentanyl or similar substances.
Some argue the Chinese government could do more to regulate and crack down on drug trafficking. Most companies producing the chemicals and drug camouflage themselves behind other legitimate businesses in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. They have office buildings and labs, conduct research and development, and are registered companies receiving export tax breaks. However, they fly below the radar by operating as legitimate businesses, bypassing heavy security and law enforcement screenings, because they lie about their export product.
When the fentanyl leaves China in precursor or whole form, it is shipped either to the United States or Mexico. An uptick in screenings by the U.S. Postal Service has made Mexican drug cartels the best method of transportation. Organized crime groups traffic fentanyl in its whole form from China or by synthesizing and cutting it into products such as cocaine or heroin. To synthesize, they order the precursor chemicals and have chemists create the fentanyl in labs. The process is dangerous but relatively easy for well-trained and experienced cartel chemists.
All around, fentanyl and equivalent substances are easier to smuggle, cheaper to make, and more profitable than other opioids or methamphetamines. The cost to produce is around $1,400 to $3,000 per kilogram; that single kilo can then be sold for more than a million dollars in the United States. That is appealing to dealers because one kilo of fentanyl is equal in value to 50 kilos of heroin. The less volume the better when the profit is the same. Fentanyl production is also extremely compact, making smuggling much easier; heroin, in comparison, is more expensive and labor-intensive. Opium poppies need a large plot of land, good weather, and care to grow. Fentanyl, on the other hand, can be made anywhere at any time — and quickly.
In just the first four months of 2021, 6,494 pounds of fentanyl have been seized at the southern border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seen an 800% increase in the amount coming into the country from Mexico. The fentanyl confiscated so far this year is enough to kill every man, woman, and child in New York. Unless slowed or stopped, the constant flow of drugs across the southern border will continue to cause overdoses and contribute to the growing suicide and mental health issues in the United States.
Read more from Keelin Ferris.