In-Depth: Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced this bill to impose new penalties on fentanyl-exporting nations like China that don’t adhere to international narcotics control standards:
“Americans are now more likely to die from opioid-related overdoses than from car accidents, and fentanyl is the drug most responsible for fatalities. Protecting our communities from illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues will require an all-hands-on-deck effort, including better cooperation from the foreign nations from which these deadly drugs are produced and trafficked into our country. This bipartisan legislation will hold these countries accountable for failing to cooperate adequately with our drug enforcement efforts. I’m grateful to Senators Toomey and Jones and Congressman Connolly for their leadership on this important bill.”
In a letter to his Congressional colleagues seeking cosponsors for this bill, Rep. Sensenbrenner wrote:
“For the past several years our nation has been afflicted by the growing number of tragic deaths caused by fentanyl overdoses. This deadly synthetic opioid is continuously being imported into the United States illegally at unprecedented levels. Much of the illicit fentanyl in the U.S. originates in China. To hold accountable countries that turn a blind eye to this problem, I have introduced the Blocking Deadly Fentanyl Imports Act (H.R. 1098). The legislation imposes new penalties on fentanyl-exporting nations, like China, that do not adhere to international narcotics control standards… Protecting our communities from illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues will require an all-hands-on-deck effort, including better cooperation from the foreign nations from which these deadly drugs are produced and trafficked into our country.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who is sponsoring the Senate version of this bill along with Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), says:
“Illicit fentanyl from outside our borders has already prematurely ended far too many American lives. As fentanyl can be fifty times as potent as heroin, even small, difficult to detect amounts can be lethal, which is why it’s important to stop this problem at its source. This bipartisan legislation is a commonsense update to existing law that will hold the nations producing illicit fentanyl accountable, whether it be China or wherever the threat emerges next.”
When this bill was introduced in the Senate during the last session of Congress, Sen. Jones added that fentanyl also harms first responders:
“Fentanyl not only harms those who use it, but it also poses a serious threat to our first responders should they be exposed. This legislation is another smart step to stop illicit fentanyl from being transported across our borders and into our communities."
President Trump has taken aim at China over fentanyl originating from within its borders, tweeting on August 21, 2018:
“It is outrageous that Poisonous Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl comes pouring into the U.S. Postal System from China. We can, and must, END THIS NOW! The Senate should pass the STOP ACT [a bill from the 115th Congress aimed at curbing illicit fentanyl exports by requiring the US Postal Service to provide advanced electronic data (AED) on all packages entering the U.S.] – and firmly STOP this poison from killing our children and destroying our country. No more delay!”
China has pushed back aggressively against U.S. claims that it’s a major source of fentanyl. Yu Haibin, an official with China’s National Narcotics Control Commission, called Trump’s tweet “unacceptable” and “irresponsible,” adding, “The United States has no proof that most fentanyl in the country comes from China. It’s highly irresponsible to draw such a conclusion based on some individual cases.” Yu added that the U.S. needs to curb its huge demand for synthetic drugs, including closing loopholes in the prescription of opioids, and pointed to the trend to more states legalizing marijuana use as having a negative impact on the opioid crisis.
John Collins, head of the International Drug Policy Institute at the London School of Economics (LSE), agrees, contending that a more comprehensive approach to managing the overdose crisis in the U.S. is needed, rather than simply relying on control of supply from abroad. However, Collins also says that “a lack of regulatory capacity, perhaps regardless of the letter of the law” limits China’s ability to control its pharmaceuticals industry.
Despite rejecting Trump’s criticism of their efforts, Chinese officials have also stressed that there’s “good and close” cooperation between U.S. and Chinese narcotics control agencies. Chinese authorities have highlighted the installation of 13,000 security check machines at shipping companies in China to inspect parcels bound for “high-risk” destinations as an example of their attempts to address U.S. concerns.
Due to fentanyl’s potency and how easy it is to smuggle it into the U.S., experts are worried about it as a potential weapon for terrorists. Rick Bright, director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, says, “Fentanyl-based drugs have been used in conflicts in other countries, so we know it’s possible.”
This bill has three bipartisan cosponsors, including two Republicans and one Democrat. There is a Senate companion bill, introduced by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Doug Jones (D-AL).
A Senate bill similar to this bill was introduced in the 115th Congress by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) with the support of one cosponsor, Rep. Doug Jones (D-AL). It didn’t receive a committee vote. Sen. Toomey introduced his bill in the 114th Congress, as well, where it had no cosponsors and didn’t receive a committee vote.
Of Note: Consequences similar to those in this bill are in place for other drugs, imposed by the State Dept. in regards to any nation deemed a “major producer or trafficker” of illicit heroin, marijuana, cocaine, or methamphetamine and its base chemicals.
Fentanyl — a powerful and deadly synthetic opioid analgesic similar to morphine, but 50-100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times more powerful than heroin — is often added to heroin. This causes users to experience a stronger effect than they’d planned, often leading to an overdose. As proof of this, the Drug Enforcement Association (DEA) reported that fentanyl was present in 67 percent of the 5,456 drug overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 29,418 Americans died from fentanyl overdoses in 2017 — up by 840 from 2012.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seizure data, China is the principal source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-related compounds in the U.S., including both scheduled and non-scheduled substances. To help deal with this problem, China scheduled 116 New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), including six fentanyl analogues, in October 2015. On March 1, 2017, China announced controls on four more fentanyl analogues: carfentanil, furanylfentanyl, valeryl fentanyl, and acryfentanyl. On December 28, 2017, it announced domestic scheduling controls on 4-anilino-N-phenethylpiperidine (ANFF) and N-phenethyl-4-piperidone (NPP), two key precursor chemicals used to produce illicit fentanyl. Additionally, under an agreement with the U.S. Postal Service, China’s postal service provides advanced electronic data (AED) on parcels mailed to the U.S. CBP reports that China is now providing AED for over 98 percent of U.S.-bound parcels.
However, there are other measures that China could take to further halt fentanyl’s spread into the U.S. For example, in November 2017, President Trump requested that China schedule fentanyl as a class, which would effectively place all fentanyl analogues under control. This is especially important because there are approximately 1,400 potential fentanyl analogues. Additionally, in April 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated that he was seeking “greater cooperation” from China in sharing bank records in order to reduce illicit fentanyl imports. Most recently, in September 2018, the Chinese government listed an additional 32 New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) as controlled substances, including “designer drugs” such as fentanyl.
Since fentanyl is fairly cheap to produce, it could shift to be manufactured in other nations. For this reason, this bill has consequences in place for any nation, not just China, that’s not proactive in curbing the production and trafficking of this drug.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Darwin Brandis)