White House claim on fentanyl from China misses the mark

U.S. President Donald Trump is claiming victory in getting China to designate fentanyl a controlled substance, but China took that step against the deadly opioid years ago.

China says its controlled substances label in place for fentanyl will eventually cover new chemical variants

In this photo, an Ontario provincial police officer displays bags containing fentanyl in Vaughan, Ont., on Feb. 23, 2017. On Jan. 24, 2018, U.S. congressional investigators said Chinese opioid manufacturers have been exploiting weak screening at the U.S. Postal Service to ship large quantities of illegal drugs to American dealers. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump is claiming victory in getting China to designate fentanyl a controlled substance, but China took that step against the deadly synthetic opioid years ago.

What's actually on the table is a far more sweeping shift in the way China regulates synthetic opioids. The question is how China will follow through on its words.

Its stated intention is to expand controls on drugs that mimic fentanyl.

Trump, speaking aboard Air Force One Saturday about his meeting at the G20 summit in Argentina with Chinese President Xi Jinping:

"What he will be doing to fentanyl could be a game changer for the United States — and what fentanyl is doing to our country in terms of killing people. Because he's agreed to put it at the highest level of crime in his country." 

The White House statement on Saturday:

"Very importantly, President Xi, in a wonderful humanitarian gesture, has agreed to designate Fentanyl as a Controlled Substance, meaning that people selling Fentanyl to the United States will be subject to China's maximum penalty under the law." — statement Saturday.

The facts:

That's a misreading of what China agreed to do, at least as far as Chinese authorities are concerned.

Fentanyl has been a controlled substance in China for years, according to Chinese regulators. As well, China has already put more than 25 variants of fentanyl on its list of controlled substances, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, said last week.

Cracking down on variants

Now, "China has decided to list all the fentanyl-like substances as controlled substances and start working to adjust related regulations," says China's foreign ministry.

Doing so could help block China's opioid merchants from skirting the law by inventing new chemical variants of fentanyl faster than regulators can declare them illegal.

The standard approach of regulating drugs one by one has failed to control the proliferation of new and deadly synthetic opioids in the United States.

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died from apparent opioid overdoses last year, up from about 3,000 in 2016, according to government figures released last June. Seventy-two per cent of those deaths in 2017 involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, compared to 55 per cent in 2016. (Associated Press)

In February, the U.S. said that for the next two years, all new chemical versions of fentanyl that weren't already regulated would be classified as illegal controlled substances. U.S. officials had been urging China to do something similar.

But China hasn't always followed through on its promises. "Similar suggestions have failed to gain approval from Chinese regulators in the past," the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in a report last week that criticized China for "slow and ineffective" regulation of fentanyl.

In 2016, U.S. negotiators thought they had secured an agreement with Beijing that China would target U.S.-bound exports of substances that were illegal in the United States, even if they weren't illegal in China, but Beijing never implemented the policy, according to the commission, a group formed by the U.S. Congress to monitor economic relations with China.

China's new approach could indeed be game-changing, as Trump said. But so far there's no timeline for implementation of the policy.

On Monday, Geng, the foreign ministry spokesman, said, "I think this is just an announcement from the Chinese side. The specific work still needs further development."

Working to identify parcels from China

Last year, the RCMP spoke of conducting at least 20 investigations involving dozens of vendors shipping fentanyl from China. Sgt. Yves Goupil said their investigation had only uncovered Chinese suppliers of fentanyl for the illicit market.​

Goupil said the Mounties, along with the Canada Border Services Agency and Canada Post, were working together to identify the best way to flag parcels arriving from China at three international mail-sorting centres — Montreal, Mississauga, Ont., and Vancouver, which gets most of the mail going to destinations across the country.

David Mulroney, Canada's ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, wrote an opinion piece that appeared Monday in the Globe and Mail newspaper, in which he called for "tougher talk" from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau against the flow of fentanyl from China.

"China has been actually working with Canadian officials and Canadian law enforcement over the past months, to take measures on the flow of fentanyl into Canada," Trudeau said at a news conference at the end of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on Saturday.

"There is, obviously, as you say, more to do. We recognize that this is a crisis that is continuing in Canada and indeed getting worse," he said.

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died from apparent opioid overdoses last year, up from about 3,000 in 2016, according to government figures released last June. Seventy-two per cent of those deaths in 2017 involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, compared to 55 per cent in 2016.

With files from The Canadian Press and CBC News