Why it's hard to stop the flood of drugs made in China

More than 70.000 Americans will die from fentanyl overdose in 2022

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For many Chinese graduates, selling chemicals online seems like an interesting job, Photo: BBC
For many Chinese graduates, selling chemicals online seems like an interesting job, Photo: BBC
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

When Sammy left her home village in Sichuan province to go to college in northern China more than ten years ago, she followed a well-trodden path of initiation.

This English graduate was the first in her family to go to college.

She loved foreign languages ​​and dreamed of becoming a teacher.

She had never heard of synthetic opioids before.

After graduation, Sammy found a job at a chemical company in the Chinese city of Shijazhuang, selling what she thought were chemicals to clients around the world.

She practiced her English every day by talking to customers online and earning a percentage of every sale she made.

Her dreams of becoming a teacher were quickly dashed.

"Maybe others are just like me... At first we don't know what we're selling, but when we find out, we've already fallen in love with the business," she says.

"You can make good money in this job," he adds.

Sammy (not her real name) is an unexpected drug dealer.

She is, according to estimates by international police agencies, one of thousands of online sales representatives who work for illegal Chinese pharmaceutical and chemical companies that manufacture and smuggle drugs created in illegal laboratories.

The US government has long accused China of flooding its country with deadly drugs such as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, which are claims the Chinese government steadfastly denies.

The US says opioids made in China are fueling the worst drug crisis in the country's history.

More than 70.000 Americans died from fentanyl overdoses in 2022.

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According to a report he published American survey committee for the Chinese Communist Party, the government of that Asian country awards subsidies to companies that openly smuggle illegal synthetic drugs.

The report found tens of thousands of postings online advertising illegal drugs and precursors.

The study claims that companies "fully owned by the state" participate in the drug trade.

The Chinese government consistently denies that it is aware of the illegal drug trade.

Many like Sammy fall into the drug trade seemingly by accident, at first unaware of the product they sell online and its deadly consequences.

But others are more aware of what they are selling.

Every morning Sara (not her real name) posts photos and videos on all social networks advertising drugs: synthetic cannabinoids, precursors to MDMA and the most difficult, a synthetic opioid that is considered up to 50 times stronger than even fentanyl.

"We have a lot of customers in the UK and have worked with them countless times," boasts Sara, an international trade graduate who now works for the online platform.

Faced with the facts, she does not allow herself to be dragged into a moral debate about selling drugs.

She claims she never asks customers how they use what she sells.

Britain's National Crime Agency (NCA) believes drug traffickers are mixing synthetic opioids with street drugs such as heroin.

According to the NCA, there have been more than 100 deaths linked to narcotics in the past nine months, prompting health professionals to warn that the UK could be facing a drug crisis.

The BBC has found hundreds of ads for najtasine online.

The contacted suppliers claim that they are sending the shipments through courier services, mislabeling the shipments and hiding the drugs in fake packaging.

The BBC also saw the registration numbers of courier parcels it received from an online sales representative in China who claimed to have successfully delivered parcels across the UK.

Sara entered this business after university.

She thought she was selling chemicals.

He has been working in the industry for two and a half years.

"I know most of the products.

"My boss has been running this company for more than seven years and knows many customers and forwarders. If the product is confiscated, he is the one who loses the most. And that's why they'll do their best to get the product to you smoothly," she says.

In March, the British government classified 15 synthetic opioids as class A drugs.

According to the Law on Drug Abuse, anyone caught supplying or manufacturing this drug can end up in prison for life.

The threat of punishment for possession is up to seven years.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), China has between 40.000 and 100.000 pharmaceutical companies.

"China has long had one of the most significant pharmaceutical industries in Asia, just like one of the largest chemical industries, and we have noticed the growth of the industry in other countries of the region as well.

"Although both industries are regulated, the challenge is considerable given the sheer scale of it, and at the same time there are many ways to ship these products. "Courier packages, airmail and shipping containers travel around the world in huge quantities," said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC's regional representative at the time, at the end of 2023.

Douglas says synthetic drugs are disrupting the traditional drug trade.

Outside of China, synthetic drugs offer opportunities to both traditional criminal organizations and cronies who can buy them directly from manufacturers on the other side of the world.

"Synthetic drugs like fentanyl have several advantages over traditional drugs - they are compact, easy to ship, there is pre-existing demand, they are easily interchangeable. They are very attractive to traders," he adds.

with the BBC

This was confirmed in my conversations with salespeople who work for Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

"First of all, our packaging is completely secret, no one knows what's inside until they open it, and secondly, we will change the name of the packaging and will not reveal the name of the product to anyone," says Sara.

"When we send a package, we get a logistics order number, we monitor the situation with the package at all times, we can find out about any potential anomalies and solve them in a timely manner," she adds.

According to Europol, the European police agency, China is the world's largest producer and distributor of synthetic drugs created in the laboratory.

Some mimic the effects of traditional drugs such as cannabis and cocaine.

Chemists synthesize new drugs to stay one step ahead of the law.

"It's a criminal enterprise, but strictly within the legal framework, which is really unique," says Dr Louise Shelley, director of the Counter-Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University and author of Dark Trade.

"I have not seen such professionalism and corporate element in this anywhere in the world. Criminal activity is a type of social mobility."

In 2020, researchers at TRaCCC studied more than 350 English-language websites that advertise the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

"Of all the ads we found, almost 40 percent of them were from corporate registries, and the largest center was in Wuhan," says Dr. Shelly.

Alamy

Sellers contacted by the BBC see the drug trade as just another facet of e-commerce.

Faced with the fact that she sells drugs that destroy people's lives, one described herself only as a "middleman".

"Someone needs it, someone else makes it, and I'm just an intermediary who informs customers that I have it, and I don't care what they do with it afterwards.

"I realized that I just need to make money. I don't know anything and I don't care. Everyone has their own needs," she says.

This woman boasts that she has customers from Canada to Croatia.

She showed us pictures of recent drug shipments along with labels bearing a British address.

"I didn't know the truth until I went online and translated the product into Chinese," she says in a message that ends with a tear emoji.

"This industry is easy and you can get paid more, which attracts a lot of young people," says Natalie (not her real name), who mainly deals with fentanyl.

"We buy from more than 10 different laboratories and have a large selection on offer.

"I have a professional freight forwarder who has handled the packaging of the goods and has a very successful delivery rate in the UK," he adds.

Meanwhile, another supplier claimed he could smuggle the drug into the UK hidden in dog food packaging.

"You don't have to worry about packaging. We guarantee you safe delivery."

"We send huge quantities to all parts of the world every day.

"Please trust our professional team. We guarantee 100 percent safe delivery."

In 2019, the Chinese government banned all forms of fentanyl and its equivalents.

In January 2024, China and the US launched a joint operation to stop the production of the synthetic opioid fentanyl

"As long as market demand in some parts of the world remains high, that demand will be met one way or another," says UNODC's Douglas.


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