China has announced that it would begin regulating all fentanyl-related drugs as a class of controlled substances, in a change officials in the United States had long advocated as a way to stem the flow of lethal opioids from the Asian nation.
The sweeping change in the way China regulates drugs that mimic fentanyl takes effect on May 1.
“We firmly believe that listing the entire class of fentanyl substances will completely block the loopholes that enable lawbreakers to evade punishment by simply modifying one or several atoms, functional groups or other groups,” Liu Yuejin, vice commissioner of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission, said at a press conference on Monday.
“It will effectively prevent the massive abuse of fentanyl substances and illegal drug trafficking and smuggling activities, and contribute to global drug control with China’s wisdom and power.”
China already controls 25 variants of fentanyl, plus two precursors used to make the drug.
Data from the US Drug Enforcement Administration have shown that when China bans a variant of fentanyl, seizures of that analogue in the US fall.
US officials have repeatedly pointed to China as the main source of synthetic opioids shipped into the country directly by mail or transported via Mexico – a claim repeatedly denied by Beijing.
“China’s control over fentanyl drugs is very strict,” Liu told reporters. “It cannot be the main source for the United States. The US accusation lacks evidence and is contrary to the facts.”
“We believe that the United States itself is the main factor in the abuse of fentanyl there,” Liu said, adding that American culture was partly to blame.
Fentanyl is a narcotic 50 times stronger than heroin and has caused record overdose deaths in the US.
A new study published last month by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed a rise in drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl from 2011 to 2016 across the US.
The issue has figured in trade talks between the US and China, and Beijing promised to list the drug when presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping agreed to a tariffs truce in December.
“The US is concerned about all variants (of fentanyl), and it’s all been resolved,” said Liu on Monday.
US officials listening in the audience declined to comment.
In December, Trump said the move could be a “game changer”, noting that Chinese courts can sentence drug traffickers to death.
“If China cracks down on this ‘horror drug,’ using the Death Penalty for distributors and pushers, the results will be incredible!” Trump tweeted at the time.
The move comes as China’s top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, prepares to return to Washington this week for more talks following discussions in Beijing last week.