With drug deaths soaring, US indicts Chinese fentanyl producers

 17 Oct 2017 - 20:16

With drug deaths soaring, US indicts Chinese fentanyl producers
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces new legislation to stop deadly fentanyl and other opiate substances from entering the United States, during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., October 17, 2017. Reuters/Yuri Gripas

AFP

Washington:  The US Justice Department announced Tuesday the indictment of two Chinese producers of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that causes a rising share of the country's 60,000-plus annual overdose deaths.

But questions remained over whether the Trump administration will go after the US makers and distributors of legal opioids that have fuelled the nation's addiction crisis.

Early Tuesday President Donald Trump's nominee to head the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Congressman Tom Marino, withdrew after news reports tied him to legislation that protected prescription drug distributors from prosecution for indiscriminately dumping hundreds of millions of tablets of highly addictive opioids like Oxycodone into the US market.

"Rep. Tom Marino has informed me that he is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar. Tom is a fine man and a great Congressman!" Trump tweeted.

Legal and illegal synthetic opioids were behind most of the 64,000 drug overdose deaths across the country in 2016, a record level expected to further rise this year.

US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Tuesday that 20,000 of those deaths resulted from fentanyl that is cheap to manufacture and is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.

With the supply of prescription opioids on the market cut back in the past two years, addicts have turned to the cheapest alternative, fentanyl or heroin cut with fentanyl.

Two Chinese, Zhang Jian and Yan Xiaobing, were indicted for supplying two separate distribution networks with fentanyl, one of them also operating in Canada.

They said Yan operated at least two chemical plants in China able to produce fentanyl by the tonne. Yan could allegedly alter the chemical makeup of the fentanyl to evade US laws, and had at least 100 distributors working for him.

US officials alleged Zhang had four fentanyl-producing laboratories and sold the drug over the Internet, paid for by crypto-currencies and shipped by international parcel services.

Zhang and Yan "represent one of the most significant drug threats facing the country -- overseas organized crime group capable of producing nearly any synthetic drug imaginable," said DEA Acting Administrator Robert Patterson.

US officials would not say if the two traffickers had been arrested or their plants shut by the Chinese authorities.

Tuesday's announcement came days after The Washington Post and 60 Minutes reported on how intensive lobbying in Congress by producers of prescription opioids and the support of a few legislators including Marino led to a 2016 law that weakened DEA efforts to crack down on them and prevent their drugs from hitting the streets.

Patterson insisted that the DEA has not let up on policing the industry and has the tools to do so, but would not say if the agency was investigating any of the major prescription opioid distributors.