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China's Xi Fools Another U.S. President With Promises of a Fentanyl Crackdown

And once again, Trump is distracted from real policy by symbolic brutality.

Just days after a White House press release described China's willingness to crack down on illicit fentanyl as a "wonderful humanitarian gesture," President Donald Trump took to Twitter to say "the results will be incredible" if the Chinese government uses "the Death Penalty for distributors and pushers."

The White House announced on December 1 that Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed, during a meeting with Trump in Argentina, that China would "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."

Xinhua/Sipa USA/NewscomXinhua/Sipa USA/NewscomWhile the White House press release skirts the issue, Trump eagerly makes plain that the maximum penalty for drug offenses in China is capital punishment. Chinese courts—perhaps at the behest of the Communist Party or in response to international outrage over illicit drug exports—have began using public sentencings to message toughness. This time last year, a court in Guangdong province sentenced seven drug offenders to death. The sentencing was treated like an event: held in a sports stadium, advertised on social media, and broadcast live online.

That Trump sees Xi's willingness to execute even more people—quite a feat, considering that China already leads the world in murdering its own citizens—reveals yet another way in which the American president favors vague bravado over policy nuance. If, in the coming months, China were to announce a large fentanyl bust (or two) and then send a dozen (or more) offenders to the gallows, Trump could take credit for wringing a concession from Xi, even though China regularly murders drug offenders and has for years.

Trump would call that a win, but people who study illicit trade know better. In 2015, China added six fentanyl products (including fentanyl itself) to its list of controlled substances; American overdose rates did not decline. As Sui-Lee Wee reports for The New York Times, China promised the Obama administration in 2016 that it would "crack down" still more on illicit fentanyl; American overdose rates did not decline. Much like American drug warriors, Xi is promising to do more of what he's already done. It hasn't worked before and it won't work now.

China's chemical manufacturing sector is too large to regulate; its law-breakers are too savvy to stay out of business for long; and its regulators are too corrupt to do the work of, well, regulating. Consider these very real obstacles, culled from a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report released in 2017:

  • China is home to over 5,000 pharmaceutical companies and over 160,000 chemical companies, and the line between legal and illegal operation is blurred by the fact that licensed manufacturers will supply both legal and illegal customers.
  • Shippers of illicit fentanyl use a network of package forwarding services that work so well most shippers will guarantee a free replacement shipment in the even of confiscation
  • Fentanyl is intentionally mislabeled as other drugs, or hidden alongside completely legal items, in order to evade detection (and it works)
  • Pill presses, used here in the U.S. and in Mexico to disguise fentanyl as prescription pills, are shipped in pieces to avoid detection (and it works)
  • Just months after adding fentanyl to its list of controlled substances in 2015, Chinese chemical factories began pumping out furanyl fentanyl, which was not on the list of controlled substances. Illicit chemists have done this, and will continue to do this, with every banned substance.
  • Chinese regulators and law enforcement have been known to delay visa approvals for Food and Drug Administration inspectors who visit to the country to inspect factories that export to the U.S., and to destroy records that would likely show legal factories are engaged in diverting substances to illegal markets.
  • Due to the massive (and growing) volume of legal Chinese goods shipped to the U.S. through legitimate online marketplaces, U.S. Customs inspectors simply cannot intercept even a meaningful fraction of the illicit substances sent to the U.S. each day

Hammering out a bilateral agreement that actually reduced the amount of illegal drugs China shipped to the U.S. would be a tall order for even a wonky president. Trump doesn't stand a chance.

Photo Credit: Xinhua/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  • Dillinger||

    >>> Illicit chemists have done this, and will continue to do this, with every banned substance.

    but it's in T's lap to fix?

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Naw, he punted it to Xi.

    Delegation is the key to every executive's efficiency.

    Well, delegate and forget, until the public gets wind of it. Then re-delegate!

    Delegation, forgettance, and redelegation are the three keys to every executive's efficiency.

  • Zeb||

    And a fanatical devotion to the pope.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    The White House announced on December 1 that Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed, during a meeting with Trump in Argentina, that China would "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."
    ...
    That Trump sees Xi's willingness to execute even more people—quite a feat, considering that China already leads the world in murdering its own citizens—reveals yet another way in which the American president favors vague bravado over policy nuance. If, in the coming months, China were to announce a large fentanyl bust (or two) and then send a dozen (or more) offenders to the gallows, Trump could take credit for wringing a concession from Xi, even though China regularly murders drug offenders and has for years.

    Trump would call that a win, but people who study illicit trade know better. In 2015, China added six fentanyl products (including fentanyl itself) to its list of controlled substances;

    IOW, Xi promised to do something that they've already done/ are doing... And Trump ate that load of horseshit up. OK...

  • LarryA||

    And Trump ate that load of horseshit up.

    I have a feeling it was more like Trump correctly identified the horseshit, but knew the media and the American people would eat it up.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Is anything really too big to regulate?

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Yes: government.

  • LarryA||

    Governments can regulate anything, if by "regulate" you mean "Write laws about."

    But if you mean "successfully keep people from doing what is prohibited," that's more difficult. No government in the history of the world has effectively shut down a black market by use of force. The only way to prevent black market transactions is to legalize the product sold.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    The USSR is a great example. Drug wars are really just excuses for corruption, with very few drug warriors actually so morally opposed to drugs that they'd pay for the privilege of fighting it, or even bet their jobs on it. But almost all government bureaucrats take internal dissent very seriously. Thus secret police, snitches, and all the rest.

    Yet the USSR could not keep control of its fax machines and phone networks, in an age where there was still incredible manual control with switchboards and funky obsolete equipment.

    The Nazis had trouble with the Abwher (sp?) who seemed to have a lot of anti-Hitler personnel, or at least more than you'd think was healthy for a regime where soldiers swore oaths to Hitler, not to the country, the government in general, or even the Nazi party itself.

    If totalitarian regimes like those can't stifle internal dissent over their very existence, there's no way to control areas that bureaucrats see as ripe for bribes.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    [1]Governments can regulate anything, if by "regulate" you mean "Write laws about."

    [2]But if you mean "successfully keep people from doing what is prohibited," that's more difficult.

    I mean a combination of #1, and regarding #2, I merely mean terrorize a few people they catch and make examples of, which leads to the rest of society perpetually looking over its collective shoulder.

  • LarryA||

    OTOH if playing along with the U.S. WoD does for China what it has done for Mexico; empower narcogangs, increase corruption, and result in rampant internal violence, that might be a plus.

  • Homple||

    Want to avoid dying from too much fentanyl? Use your freedom and personal agency and don't take illegal drugs. Then you don't have to worry about Trump and Xi keeping you alive, you can take care of yourself.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Want to avoid going to prison for having a gun? Use your freedom and personal agency and don't buy or use illegal guns. Then you don't have to worry about Hillary keeping you alive, you can take care of yourself.

    Oh wait.

    Fuck off, slaver.

  • Homple||

    All I'm saying is: if you want to not die from fentanyl, don't take drugs that might contain it.

    I'm surprised that this is controversial.

  • Dillinger||

    not controversial. temperance makes easy target for snark.

  • Homple||

    I'm not advocating temperance, I just suggest leaving alone stuff of unknown provenance that might be poisonous.

  • Dillinger||

    sure. to a bunch of people (assumed) who for years have been smoking weed they didn't grow, and snorting coke and dropping acid and ecstasy they didn't manufacture ... all of whom are alive and well enough to comment @HnR in the snottiest of ways

    my point was not you are incorrect rather your choir is absent.

  • Homple||

    Dillinger, I agree with your assessment of the audience here. My only point is that people can avoid dying from drug overdose by avoiding drugs from dodgy sources, irrespective of what government does or does not do.

  • TuIpa||

    In the world of taking drugs that is probably impossible.

  • BYODB||


    In the world of taking drugs that is probably impossible.

    In fact, that's one of the predictable aspects of any black market. It's an impossible proposition to both take an illcit substance and have perfect knowledge of it's origin unless you are the origin or you know the maker personally. You'd also need to assume that person can not lie, which seems rational when talking about a person who willfully violates the law to provide black market goods, no?

    How many people do you know that readily can identify what LSD stands for, let alone how to make it? I'd wager a few could get LSD right, and you probably know zero people who can make it.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Want to avoid idiot commenters and annoying trolls? Don't comment at Reason.

    (not an attack on any specific commenter on this thread)

  • Berserkerscientist||

    The reason drugs are contaminated with fentanyl is due to prohibition. So Trump and Xi are actively killing people through governmental war on drugs.

  • Homple||

    How would legalizing drugs get rid of the fentanyl problem?

  • SQRLSY One||

    Painkiller addicts were happy to take pain pills of known dosages before the crack-down on legal use of pain pills "made them" take fentanyl instead (yes I know, they could have chosen to take no painkillers at all, for many of them, excluding those who are in horrible pain from what have you).

    Smugglers want to smuggle the most concentrated goodies that they can haul... 50 pounds of hashish is easier to smuggle than 2 tons of pot; 15 ounces of fentanyl is easier to smuggle than 10 pounds of heroin, and so on. So... Because of Government Almighty's meddling (and due to lack of dose control and a push towards more powerfully concentrated substances), people are dying who would not otherwise die. THAT is why people are upset; THAT is why fentanyl is a problem in the first place.

    If ALL other sources of a "buzz" were strictly eliminated, kids would be huffing gasoline!!! It is all about "harm reduction" for those of us who love our neighbors...

  • ||

    Smugglers want to smuggle the most concentrated goodies that they can haul... 50 pounds of hashish is easier to smuggle than 2 tons of pot; 15 ounces of fentanyl is easier to smuggle than 10 pounds of heroin, and so on.

    This is true whether they're smuggling or not.

  • SQRLSY One||

    The diesel fuel burned in your truck, and the space taken up, of transporting 15 ounces of fentanyl v/s 10 pounds of heroin is totally trivial, when both are legal. When you are instead dithering with a probability function of one v/s the other, for getting caught and getting ass-fucked for 20 years in federal fuck-me-up-the-ass jail, then the difference between the two is MUCH bigger! Especially if I have to stick the crap in balloons and swallow them of jackhammer them up my ass to smuggle them...

    So outlawing painkillers puts a HUGE thumb on the scale, in favor of the most potent stuff that you can find, which is also harder to dose-control...

    Thanks Government Almighty for killing so many of our fellow Americans!!!

  • Homple||

    Government Almighty doesn't force people to get stupid with dangerous substances. Overdosing is a personal decision irrespective of government rules or no rules.

  • Wizard4169||

    No, but government rules do make these substances more dangerous than they need to be.

  • Homple||

    Who will manufacture the fully legal pure and accurately dosed but still potentially lethal non-prescription drugs? I doubt if pharmaceutical companies or other legitimate manufacturers would risk the inevitable lawsuits resulting from people killing themselves. They would want guaranteed immunity from litigation, so that would have to be part of legalization.

    Otherwise, the cartels will keep making the stuff with their dubious quality control. They might not add fentanyl, but people will certainly die from overdoses.

  • BYODB||


    Who will manufacture the fully legal pure and accurately dosed but still potentially lethal non-prescription drugs? I doubt if pharmaceutical companies or other legitimate manufacturers would risk the inevitable lawsuits resulting from people killing themselves


    I don't know, ask the makers of Tylenol which can kill you dead quite fucking easily. Seems they're still in business, yes?

  • Homple||

    Tell that to a potential investor in your financing pitch.

  • Wizard4169||

    As long as their products aren't contaminated and do contain the substance and dosage advertised, there's absolutely no reason manufacturers should be liable. I wouldn't get very far suing GM because I crashed my Chevy while I was drunk.

  • Zeb||

    People want heroin, not fentanyl. And even if they do want fentanyl, it's possible to take it safely if you know exactly what you are taking.

  • Homple||

    Agreed, but will legitimate manufacturers produce the stuff absent immunity from litigation? Pharma companies get sued for actions of drugs that have passed all requirements for federal approval. Good luck with non-prescription heroin unless producers are held harmless for dead users.

  • Wizard4169||

    Did you hear about the guy who chugged a beer, only to die of alcohol poisoning because it was actually Everclear? Of course you didn't, because that doesn't happen. In a legal market, it's so much easier to hold people accountable for fraudulent or defective products. Branding and competition help to ensure quality products. Black markets often feature monopoly suppliers, so you can't just go to the other dealer across the street. And good luck suing your dealer for low-quality or dangerous goods.

  • ||

    The reason drugs are contaminated with fentanyl is due to prohibition.

    Uh... ignoring potential human error, let's go with a vague mix of biochemistry, prohibition, and socialized medicine.

    100 ug of fentanyl (an effective does) costs something like $0.66 at market value. An effective dose of heroin is almost 1000X larger (closer to 100 mg) and costs something like $20. Oxycontin works at like an 80 mg dose but still costs something like $8-80 per dose.

    If you can't tell the difference between 100ug of fentanyl, 100mg of heroine, and 80mg of Oxy, there's a big incentive to cut fentanyl to the dose equivalent of heroin or Oxy and charge you that price. This is true without regard for the DEA scheduling of the drug and is why fentanyl was developed and used to manage pain.

  • JFree||

    Not sure where any motive more than 'profit' is needed to explain it.

    May not sit well with the just legalize and problem will go away crowd. But reality bites sometimes

  • ||

    Not sure where any motive more than 'profit' is needed to explain it.

    Sure, but "The real problem is profits!" has a distinct connotation to it.

  • Homple||

    Agreed, "profit" rather than logistics is the more likely explanation.

  • SQRLSY One||

    And when the feds get back around to outlawing booze again, like they did in the 1920s, will you be there, cheer-leading them on, telling people to "just say no" to drinking smuggled booze or home-brewed booze?

    Also, if you want to stay safe from the illegal use of cheap plastic flutes, I urge you to NOT do what is described below! Stay SAFE from the Flute Police!!!

    To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

  • Homple||

    I suggest "just say no" to consuming stuff that might kill you. Again, I'm surprised that this is controversial.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Water can kill you, salt can kill you, aspirin can kill you. It's all about getting the right dosage... Total LACK of some of these things can kill you too! It is a little-known fact that low dosages of ionizing radiation are actually GOOD for you, for example.

    On radioactivity (ionizing radiation), Google "radiation hormesis", and see USA government study of the Taiwan thing (accidental experiment on humans) at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pm.....MC2477708/ … Low-dose radioactivity is actually GOOD for you! Seriously!!!

    Anyway, Government Almighty then makes things WORSE for those who get "hooked" (or those who need pain control and cannot get it legally, due to too many hoops-to-jump, set up by Government Almighty), by making it near-impossible to practice proper "dose control" with illegal pain killers! It's as if Government Almighty starting taking pot-shots at rock climbers and motorbike riders, making their endeavors far more dangerous, and then you just say, "well, don't climb rocks or ride motor bikes"!

  • Homple||

    I'm fine with people taking all the risks they want. My take on illegal drugs is: legalize them and let Darwin smarten up the population.

    That said, my advice to those who don't want to die from an overdose is: leave that shit alone.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Well OK then, good for you, I agree with you!

    Logical consistency would say you should include booze and cigarettes in your list of what you should warn people away from. Include those in your list, and you will stir up far less objections, I suspect... So long as you also make it clear that Government Almighty interventions are generally counter-productive! As I believe that you have, just now...

  • Homple||

    The article is about drugs, so I stick to that. My point here is that bitching about the government (which I am happy to do) won't keep you from harm if you decide to load up with a dodgy drug.

  • Zeb||

    It's not so much controversial as obvious and uninteresting. The concern is about people who are taking the drugs anyway. If you don't care about those people, that's fine. Some people do and we've learned over the past 30-something years that "just say no" isn't deterring those people.

  • Homple||

    I can't help it that common sense isn't "deterring these people". Given that 70,000 people died from overdoses last year, you'd think that would be enough to make people wary of what they consume.

  • JFree||

    What we need is for Trump to appoint Lin Zexu to crack down on the fentanyl trade. Then Winnie the Pooh can invoke free trade to declare war on the US. And Reason can write a ton of articles supporting the First Fentanyl War because free trade always provides maximal benefits to everyone.

  • ||

    "..This time last year, a court in Guangdong province sentenced seven drug offenders to death."

    You would think there would be more of an uproar in the West like they did the journalist killed by the Saudis.

    Nice stats. That's a lot of companies to regulate.

  • Paloma||

    They can always use the Social Credit System.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Trump's tweet is indefensible.

    I'd say it was just words, but it's not. People are being executed.

    Um . . . at least he isn't openly hostile to capitalism like Liz Warren, which is another way of saying, "Look, a squirrel!"

  • Dillinger||

    >>>People are being executed.

    this bothered me.

  • Paloma||

    Trump figures they're just foreigners as long as they buy more American stuff, he's cool.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Democrats and Republicans definitely get behind drug prohibitions.

    Its the one thing they can agree on!

  • TuIpa||

    Much like "awesome" "incredible" doesn't necessarily mean good.

  • Echospinner||

    Fentanyl is like the smart phone. You cannot unmake it. Once the technology is out it is over. So long as there is demand the supply will be there.

    So how does legalization work exactly? If you can just walk up to the checkout at Walmart with your pack of heroin like a pack of chewing gum is that legalization? Do we regulate it like pseudafed? Pharmacy dispense. Or do we regulate it like Coumadin? Pharmacy dispense with prescription. Or alchohol, state regulated with local license.

    Legalization is not the same as decriminalization. Heroin is still illegal in Portugal.

    All drugs are not the same. Opiates are a choice and addiction can be treated if the individual wants it. Yet opiates are far more physically addictive and destructive than pot or tobacco. The effects on the central nervous system are well documented. It is not simply a matter of individual consequences because the consequences and costs go beyond the user.

    Then in medicine you cannot replace opiates for a broad range of indications both short and long term. Now we have swung too far and people are not getting the treatment they need.

  • BYODB||


    Do we regulate it like pseudafed? Pharmacy dispense. Or do we regulate it like Coumadin? Pharmacy dispense with prescription. Or alchohol, state regulated with local license.

    Pseudoephedrine was created because of fears regarding the 'natural' drug ephedrine, which is sort of ironic since it's now an ingredient of meth which is way worse than either. Coumadin is essentially rat poison, which you can buy over the counter if memory serves. Your point is apt though, in that just because something is decriminalized doesn't make it unregulated. That is not a logical consequence.


    It is not simply a matter of individual consequences because the consequences and costs go beyond the user.

    Yeah, because the government has made it that way. Socially one could easily point out the many negative consequences to family and friends, but the imposition of a government system of shifting those costs on everyone might be considered to be a central problem there.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Jurisprudence as spectator sport? Hmm, this gives me an idea on how to reduce taxes AND balance the budget.

    Trump has already brought reality TV style to the presidency. Think how we could create, and market, actual reality TV with a cast of our national "leaders". How much more stupid would be required to give a creative director enough material to make irresistible programing, and mega buck advertising revenue? Our government has clearly failed as managers, so let's outsource that responsibility and give in to our collective desire for government as entertainment--and profit center.

  • BYODB||

    Sort of like how China is laughing all the way to the bank while we cut our own balls off to save the world from climate change? While they pump out shit that is orders of magnitude more dangerous for the environment in order to build our shit for us? You know, to ship to us from the other side of the planet?


    Something like that?

  • Roger Knights||

    The article lists the difficulties involved in discouraging production need marketing of fentanyl in China. Maybe 100,000 people are involved enough to know enough to put the police on the scent, and maybe 1000 people have intimite knowledge of one organization's operations to enable the police to go in and shut it down.

    These people don't snitch because the incentives are against doing so. If the incentives were reversed, widespread snitching would cut fentanyl shipments by 90%, per my SWAG. It's worth a try, perhaps in a single geographic area as a pilot program. Incentives would be a large reward, and a witness protection program. Perhaps the U.S. or the UN could put up the reward money, or half of it.

    Thousands of lives are being lost annually (mostly or largely from persons seeking pain-relief) as a result of the status quo. Things must change.

    (Of course our government should also back off its pain-pill crackdown, reducing the demand-side of the equation.)

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