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Feb. 16, 2017BEIJING—China moved to stem its flow of deadly drugs to the U.S., adding four lethal heroin-like narcotics to a list of controlled substances after Washington had urged it to help combat a growing opioid epidemic.
The added substances notably include carfentanil, which is 10,000 times as potent as morphine and is used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large animals. Carfentanil is a chemical cousin of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Both are contributors to the rise in fatal overdoses in the U.S., where the government has declared the epidemic a public-health crisis.
The Chinese decision was reported in state media on Thursday and confirmed by an official at China’s National Narcotics Control Commission. It will take effect March 1. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration praised China’s move, which it said “may very well save hundreds of American lives.”
China “has made an important and critical step forward that will have a potentially significant impact on the supply chain of these deadly substances in the United States,” DEA spokesman Russell Baer said.
The new action aims to close a loophole. While fentanyl has long been designated a controlled substance in China, similar compounds known as analogues have been more loosely regulated and were easier to export. That has contributed to China becoming a factory for some synthetic opioids.
Unlike other narcotics such as methamphetamine that are both produced and abused in China, fentanyl and its analogues haven’t gained significant footholds in the country like they have in the U.S. That leaves U.S. officials with the difficult task of trying to convince Chinese officials of why a problem thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean should matter to them.
In the U.S., fentanyl is often mixed with heroin or pressed into pill form, according to the DEA. In some cases, users consume highly potent fentanyl and its analogues unknowingly, raising the risk of overdose and death. A Wall Street Journal article last year traced the flow from Chinese suppliers of fentanyl and its analogues to users in the U.S., where synthetic opioids kill several dozen people each day.
More rigorous controls over analogues such as carfentanil was among the top agenda items for DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg during a visit to China in January. At the time, Mr. Baer, the agency’s spokesman, said that in discussions with Chinese officials the U.S. had tried to convey the gravity of the public-health crisis in the U.S. and to stress China’s important role in helping tamp down the global trade.
“Every chance we get, we talk about the human carnage that is happening here,” Mr. Baer said at the time of the DEA’s discussions with China.
Besides carfentanil, China said it would also place under control three other analogues: furanyl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl and valeryl fentanyl.