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  Chemical weapons for sale: China’s unregulated narcotic

Chemical weapons for sale: China’s unregulated narcotic

AP
Published : Oct 11, 2016, 6:52 am IST
Updated : Oct 11, 2016, 6:52 am IST

Before being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were viewed as chemical weapons. Carfentanil is so deadly that an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person.

In this June 27, 2016 photo provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. -AP
 In this June 27, 2016 photo provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. -AP

Before being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were viewed as chemical weapons. Carfentanil is so deadly that an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person.

For a few thousand dollars, Chinese companies offer to export a powerful chemical that has been killing unsuspecting drug users and is so lethal that it presents a potential terrorism threat, an Associated Press investigation has found.

 

The AP identified 12 Chinese businesses that said they would export the chemical — a synthetic opioid known as carfentanil — to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and Australia for as little as $2,750 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), no questions asked.

Carfentanil burst into view this summer, the latest scourge in an epidemic of opioid abuse that has killed tens of thousands of people in the United States alone. Dealers have been cutting carfentanil and its weaker cousin, fentanyl, into heroin and other illicit drugs to boost profit margins.

Despite the dangers, carfentanil is not a controlled substance in China, where it is manufactured legally and sold openly online. The US government is pressing China to blacklist carfentanil, but Beijing has yet to act, leaving a substance whose lethal qualities have been compared with nerve gas to flow into foreign markets unabated.

 

“We can supply carfentanil ... for sure,” a saleswoman from Jilin Tely Import and Export Co. wrote in broken English in a September email. “And it’s one of our hot sales product.”

China’s ministry of public security declined multiple requests for comment from the AP.

Before being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were viewed as chemical weapons. One of the most powerful opioids in circulation, carfentanil is so deadly that an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin; carfentanil is chemically similar, but 100 times stronger than fentanyl itself.

“It’s a weapon,” said Andrew Weber, assistant secretary of defence for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009 to 2014. “Companies shouldn’t be just sending it to anybody.”

 

Carfentanil was first developed in the 1970s, and its only routine use is as an anaesthetic for elephants and other large animals. Governments quickly targeted it as a potential chemical weapon. Forms of fentanyl are suspected in at least one known assassination attempt, and were used by Russian forces against Chechen separatists who took hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater in 2002. The chemicals are banned from the battlefield under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

In fiscal year 2014, US authorities seized just 3.7 kilograms (8.1 pounds) of fentanyl. This fiscal year, through just mid-July, they have seized 134.1 kilograms, according to US Customs and Border Protection data obtained by the AP. Fentanyl is the most frequently seized synthetic opioid, US Customs reports.

 

Users are dying of accidental respiratory arrest, and overdose rates have soared. China has not been blind to the key role its chemists play in the global opioid supply chain. Most synthetic drugs that end up in the United In States come from China, either directly or by way of Mexico, according to the DEA. China already has placed controls on 19 fentanyl-related compounds. Adding carfentanil to that list is likely to only diminish, not eliminate, global supply.

Despite periodic crackdowns, people willing to skirt the law are easy to find in China’s vast, freewheeling chemicals industry, made up of an estimated 160,000 companies operating legally and illegally. Vendors said they lie on customs forms, guaranteed delivery to countries where carfentanil is banned and volunteered strategic advice on sneaking packages past law enforcement. Speaking from a bright booth at a chemicals industry conference in Shanghai last month, Xu Liqun said her company, Hangzhou Reward Technology, could produce carfentanil to order.

 

“It’s dangerous, dangerous, but if we send 1kg, 2kg, it’s okay,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t do the synthesis herself because she’s pregnant. She said she knows carfentanil can kill and believes it should be a controlled substance in China.

“The government should impose very serious limits, but in reality in China it’s so difficult to control because if I produce one or two kilograms, how will anyone know ” she said. “They cannot control you, so many products, so many labs.”

Several vendors recommended sending the drugs via EMS, the express mail service of state-owned China Postal Express & Logistics Co., as a fail-safe option.

 

EMS declined to comment. A Yuntu representative hung up the phone when contacted by the AP and did not reply to emails seeking comment. Soon after, the company’s website vanished.

In 2002, Russian special forces turned to carfentanil after a three-day standoff with Chechen separatists, who had taken more than 800 people hostage in a Moscow theater. They used an aerosol version of carfentanil, along with the less potent remifentanil, sending it through air vents, according to a paper by British scientists who tested clothing and urine samples from three survivors.

The strategy worked, but more than 120 hostages died from the effects of the chemicals.

 

Olga Dolotova, an engineer who survived the attack, remembers seeing white plumes descending before she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she found herself on a bus packed with bodies. “It was such a horror just to look at it,” she said. “Nobody was moving. They put the people there like dolls.”

The theatre siege raised concerns about carfentanil as a tool of war or terrorism, and prompted the US to develop strategies to counter its use, according to Weber, the former defence department chemical weapons expert.

The US, Russia, China, Israel, the Czech Republic, the UK and India are among the countries that have assessed carfentanil and related compounds for offensive or defensive applications, according to publicly available documents and academic studies.

 

“Countries that we are concerned about were interested in using it for offensive purposes,” Weber said. “We are also concerned that groups like ISIS could order it commercially.”

Weber considered a range of alarming scenarios, including the use of carfentanil to knock out and take troops hostage, or to kill civilians in a closed environment like a train station. He added that it is important to raise awareness about the threat from carfentanil trafficking.

Among the problems with fentanyls is that the line between life and death is too thin.

“There is no incapacitating chemical agent that can be used in a tactical situation without extreme risk of injury or death to everybody in the room,” Crowley said.

 

Location: China, Shanghai