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Legislation Would Pressure Mainland China to Aggressively Enforce Fentanyl Laws

On 4 April, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York), along with Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Bob Menendez (New Jersey) and Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Republican Senators Tom Cotton (Arkansas), Marco Rubio (Florida) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania), introduced legislation to impose sanctions with respect to foreign traffickers of illicit opioids. Florida, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania have been among the U.S. states most affected by the opioid crisis, something that the Fentanyl Sanctions Act (S. 1044) is seeking to address.

ABC News reported that “it’s not often the Senate’s Democratic leader teams up with one of the chamber’s most conservative members, but so it was on Thursday when Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Arkansas’ Tom Cotton joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce legislation that would slap targeted sanctions on China if it fails to live up to a recent promise to regulate fentanyl as a controlled substance.”

U.S. statistics show that from August 2017 through August 2018 more than 48,000 people in the United States died from an opioid overdose, with synthetic opioids (excluding methadone) contributing to a record 31,900 overdose deaths. While overdose deaths from the abuse of prescription opioids and traditional illegal opioids such as heroin have been levelling off, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, continue to climb. U.S. drug enforcement agencies claim that mainland China is the world’s largest producer of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Those substances are ostensibly shipped via express consignment carriers and international mail from mainland China directly to the United States or, alternatively, shipped to criminal organisations in Mexico where fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs such as heroin and then trafficked into the United States.

Following a commitment made to the United States at the G20 summit in December 2018, mainland Chinese regulators announced on 1 April that a wider range of fentanyl derivatives would be declared controlled substances in mainland China by 1 May. While the lawmakers believe this change is a major step in the right direction, they nonetheless note that Beijing already has problems enforcing its current drug laws and continues to deny that its illicit fentanyl producers are a major source of illicit opioids in the United States. The lawmakers are of the opinion that strict implementation and enforcement will be key, as mainland China has a long history of failing to live up to agreements with the United States. As part of this effort, mainland China must move forward with an aggressive plan to enforce its announced new laws and work with the United States to further regulate its pharmaceutical industries and co-ordinate closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies to stem the flow of fentanyl trafficking.

The Fentanyl Sanctions Act would pressure the mainland Chinese government to aggressively enforce its new law and provide the U.S. government with additional sanctions and tools to go after drug traffickers in the mainland and other locations. The legislation would (i) establish several categories of financial sanctions and denial of entry visas to persons or entities involved in any way with opioid exporting, including drug manufacturers, criminal organisations and financial institutions that assist such entities; (ii) authorise US$600 million in new enforcement funding to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as to the Treasury, Defense and State departments, to combat foreign trafficking of opioids; and (iii) establish a Commission on Synthetic Opioid Trafficking to monitor U.S. efforts and report on how to more effectively combat the flow of synthetic opioids. The legislation specifically calls on mainland China to (i) schedule the entire category of fentanyl-type substances as controlled substances and (ii) change its national and provincial laws and increase provincial law enforcement efforts to prosecute traffickers of fentanyl substances.

Sen. Schumer mentioned that he had talked to President Trump about the legislation and said that there was “a very, very good chance it gets signed into law,” comparing the proposed sanctions to those imposed against bad actors who endanger U.S. national security. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t use those same powerful sanctions to keep us safe from another killer, the opioid epidemic,” he said.

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