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.

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 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."

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