cover image: China and synthetic drugs control: Fentanyl, methamphetamines, and precursors


China and synthetic drugs control: Fentanyl, methamphetamines, and precursors

23 Mar 2022

Synthetic opioids remain the source of the deadliest U.S. drug epidemic ever. Since 1999, drug overdoses have killed approximately 1 million Americans,1 an overdose lethality that has increased significantly since 2012 when synthetic opioids from China began supplying the U.S. demand for illicit opioids. Even though China placed the entire class of fentanyl-type drugs and two key fentanyl precursors under a controlled regulatory regime in May 2019, it remains the principal (if indirect) source of U.S. fentanyl. Fentanyl scheduling and China's adoption of stricter mail monitoring has created some deterrence effects. Instead of finished fentanyl being shipped directly to the United States, most smuggling now takes place via Mexico. Mexican criminal groups source fentanyl precursors -- and increasingly pre-precursors -- from China, and then traffic finished fentanyl from Mexico to the United States. Scheduling of fentanyl and its precursors in China is not sufficient to stem flows to the United States.
china mexico latin america & the caribbean illicit trade international affairs u.s. foreign policy drug trafficking & counter-narcotics policy crime & criminal justice


Vanda Felbab-Brown

I am deeply grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful suggestions. I would also like to thank Nathan Paul Southern and Lindsey Kennedy for their investigative work in locating additional valuable interlocutors in Asia and the Pacific for me to interview for this project. My great thanks also go to Bradley Porter, Abigail Zislis, Wazhma Yousafi, and Ryan Harbison for great research assistance and other project support and to Cindy Zhou for her excellent research support in Chinese and more. Enormous thanks also to Ted Reinert for this superb editing of the paper and Rachel Slattery for the terrific layout. Finally, I would like to deeply thank all of many interlocutors in Asia and the Pacific, Mexico, and the United States and at international organizations who were willing to speak with me, sometimes at the risks of serious repercussions from authoritarian or corrupt government officials or organized crime groups. Brookings is grateful to the U.S. Department of State and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting for funding this research.
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