These days Mexican drug cartels are in the forefront of people’s minds when they think about the opioid epidemic. Our southern neighbor has vast poppy fields and tons of heroin are smuggled across the border each year. The violence associated with these drug organizations is frightening. Their power and influence reaches across Mexico and across our nation as well. The sheer size and sophistication of the cartels is more akin to armies than to gangs. The amount of money involved rivals that of legitimate industries. Giant drug busts make for exciting news stories. Drug lords like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the alleged leader of the Sinaloa Carter, seem larger than life. From 2009 to 2011 Forbes Magazine ranked him as one of the most powerful people in the world and regarded him as “the biggest drug lord of all time”. 1 Popular shows like Netflix’s “Narcos Mexico” has put the cartels even more in the public consciousness.
The cartels’ notoriety, until very recently, has been overshadowing a new and influential player on the rise in the global drug trade. Born of changing conditions in the market due to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, that new player is China. Although some fentanyl is produced in Mexico and much of it is smuggled through Mexico, most of the fentanyl in the U.S. comes from China.
Fentanyl is incredibly strong. It has surpassed heroin as the opiate that causes the most overdose deaths. For medical purposes it is measured in micrograms (one millionth of a gram) and just a couple milligrams is enough to be a lethal dose. Fentanyl is so strong that the U.S., China, and Israel have studied it as a chemical weapon. According to British government scientists, Russia used carfentanil as a weapon in 2002 to incapacitate a group of Chechen separatists that had taken hostages at a theater in Moscow.
The popularity of fentanyl among drug dealers stems from its potency and its synthetic composition. Again, the dose needed to achieve the desired effects from fentanyl are measured in micrograms. That means that the potential profit margins are enormous. I found a Bloomberg article that told the story of a Mississippi police sergeant and a DEA agent who went undercover in 2013 trying to follow the supply line of a synthetic drug ring. They said that at the time, a kilo of heroin in the state would wholesale for about $50,000 and turn a profit of $200,000. The two men purchased a kilo of fentanyl online from China for $3,800 that could net a profit in the millions.
Fentanyl is also relatively easy and cheap to make. Compared with the process of making heroin it is extremely easy. In a best case scenario, an acre of opium poppy plants would yield about 6 kilos of raw opium and 0.6 kilos of heroin. Growing conditions are out of human control and poppy plants require a lot of maintenance. Making heroin is labor intensive. Large poppy fields attract attention. Fentanyl can be discreetly made in a lab from a handful of chemical precursors.
China is proving to be a perfect place for a new kind of drug dealer to operate out of. The chemical industry is huge. There are approximately 160,000 chemical companies in the country. Labs are not closely regulated by the government. Fentanyl analogues often remain legal there well after they have been banned in the U.S. China typically bans these substances one at a time and only after other countries or the United Nations provides evidence as to why a particular chemical should be banned. Anyone is allowed to buy pill presses. 2 Distributors do with fentanyl the same thing that they do with other synthetic drugs like bath salts and spice. They sell analogues: compounds that are just slightly different in chemical structure to fentanyl but produce similar effects. Selling analogues that have not been made illegal yet keeps dealers ahead of the law. Recently President Trump made an agreement with Chinese president Xi Jinping that is meant to curb the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. but experts are saying that results will not be immediate and that China’s commitment to the crackdown is questionable.
One of the biggest challenges to stopping fentanyl production is location. It is believed that most of the drug is not being made in illicit underground labs but covertly in legitimate labs. The pharmaceutical industry in China is big business just like it is in the U.S. and disrupting it in an attempt to reduce illegal fentanyl production could cause major economic problems.
Bulk shipments of fentanyl are often sent to Mexican cartels who then mix it into their heroin but a little fentanyl goes a long way because it is so potent. Small amounts can easily be shipped through the mail and other carriers like FedEx and UPS. Cutting fentanyl with other drugs makes it go even further. Dealers in America can do the same thing as the cartels but on a smaller scale. Drug dealers can also buy chemical precursors to fentanyl from China and set up their own labs here in the U.S. In the last few years, police and customs agents have made several seizures of tens of thousands of fentanyl pills or fentanyl-laced pills.
Chinese distributors are sometimes brazen with website postings openly advertising fentanyl and analogues for sale. They will offer trial packages, money-back guarantees, and even replacement product for lost or seized shipments. They will label packages of chemicals and drugs as other innocuous products. Investigations into these Chinese rings have revealed networks of hundreds of distributors in the U.S. that fentanyl has been shipped to. These illegal packages can be hard to trace. In 2016, according to the White House commission, over 200 million packages came into the U.S. from foreign countries. The vast majority of these are legal, normal parcels but with numbers like that it is virtually impossible to stop all illegal shipments.
Many people buy fentanyl through the dark web where they can remain anonymous, using encrypted messaging and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. That’s exactly what my fentanyl dealer did. He would order the drug online using an onion router to connect to the dark web and about a week later he would get a package right in the mail filled with powder fentanyl. Easy as that. A small envelope about the size of a greeting card contained hundreds of doses of the drug and yielded a huge profit for him.
In the last several years the Justice Department has shut down a few major drug marketplaces on the dark web including Silk Road and AlphaBay but countless other sites exist. 8 The government is trying to increase security measures for packages coming into the U.S. from foreign countries using things like drug-sniffing dogs and electronic data monitoring but with hundreds of millions of packages each year, the task is daunting. 8
The deadliest opioid on the black market today also seems to be one of the easiest to get. Fentanyl can be obtained through the mail. With the right ingredients it can be made with just a cursory understanding of chemistry. Selling fentanyl by itself or mixed with other drugs turns huge profits for dealers. Authorities worry that even if an agreement with China is able to stem the tide, the distribution center of fentanyl may relocate to India, which also has a large pharmaceutical sector. The digital age that we live in and the global connectedness we have through the internet has allowed for the proliferation of a new kind of web-based drug dealer and a rapidly changing marketplace. Although the landscape of the drug game is different than in the past, the game is the same. Opportunistic dealers come up with new ways to skirt the law and outsmart authorities. They always seem to be one step ahead. It is a scary trend and the government and authorities need to be able to adapt just like the dealers do if they want to be able to combat the opioid epidemic.