China’s “weakly regulated and poorly monitored” pharmaceutical industry is to blame for the epidemic of deadly fentanyl and similar drugs being shipped to Florida and other states, a federal government report concluded Wednesday.
The findings are not new — the growing problem of Chinese synthetic drugs was highlighted in the Miami Herald’s 2015 Pipeline China series — but underscore the challenges of curbing the opioid-addiction wave that has hit South Florida and communities across the country.
The report noted that even though China has cooperated with the American government to ban some versions of the potent drug commonly dubbed “synthetic heroin,” new versions are constantly concocted in clandestine labs before unknown quantities make their way to North America.
“Because illicit fentanyl is not widely used in China, authorities place little emphasis on controlling its production and export,” according to the report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
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The report’s release comes the same week as fentanyl and heroin were discussed at the first meeting of Miami-Dade’s Opioid Task Force, made up of elected leaders, law-enforcement officers and health officials looking for solutions to curb the crisis. The increase in the death toll has been staggering, the task force heard Monday.
There were at least 162 confirmed deaths related to fentanyl and its synthetic cousins in Miami-Dade, plus another 82 suspected cases that are awaiting final toxicology testing. In total, that’s a 208 percent increase from last year, according to the Medical Examiner’s office.
“More people are dying from this problem and this addiction than car accidents in Miami-Dade,” county Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the task force. “More people are dying of opioid addiction than of murders.”
Miami-Dade prosecutor Howard Rosen, who oversees narcotics investigations and is a member of the task force, said addicts seeking a high are willing to risk the danger.
“In law enforcement, we’re told the dealers sometimes use it as a marketing tool, implying their product is so good it can kill,” Rosen said.
The effects of fentanyl and its variants have been widely chronicled, devastating communities across the continent and in Florida, where a crackdown on prescription painkillers such as Oxycodone is believed to have led to the spike in heroin and fentanyl abuse.
Fentanyl, which is used legally as a surgical painkiller but is now more prevalent on the streets in its illegal Chinese-made form, can be 50 times more potent than heroin. There’s an even deadlier version wreaking havoc on Miami-Dade streets: carfentenil, a drug that is normally only used to tranquilize elephants and large animals.
Overdose deaths have hit every part of Miami-Dade, although the impoverished Overtown neighborhood has been particularly hard hit — it is also believed to be the go-to hub for sales of the illegal opioids.
In South Florida, the growing epidemic has ramped up law-enforcement efforts as the trade has created a new breed of drug dealers who use the internet to order synthetic narcotics from easily accessible Chinese websites. The drugs are sent to the United States or Mexico in packages deliberately mislabeled to avoid detection.
“Avoiding detection has become so simple that many Chinese narcotics distributors will guarantee customers a second shipment if the first is seized by law enforcement,” Wednesday’s report said.
The federal commission noted that the United States law enforcement needs to “enhance cooperation” with Chinese counterparts to help curb the production and exportation of the chemicals and drugs.
The maze of corruption and haphazard government regulations for chemicals and pharmaceuticals in China means the United States is effectively hamstrung, the report noted. “Bureaucratic infighting can prevent the Chinese government from carrying out precise and effective counternarcotics operations,” the report said.