China Says It Will Implement Promised Scheduling of Fentanyl

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People's Republic of China officials said Monday that they would finally add fentanyl and its analogs to its lists of controlled substances, hopefully striking a blow against illegal distribution of the synthetic drug from China to the United States.

The regulatory change will take effect May 1, CBS News reported, and will cover not only the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl but the wide variety of chemical analogs including even more potent variations like carfentanil and sufentanil.

China already schedules 25 fentanyl analogs, as well as two precursors. However, a blanket ban will help law enforcement target illicit chemists who skirt the law by producing technically legal variants.

"We firmly believe that listing the entire class of fentanyl substances will completely block the loopholes that enable law breakers to evade punishment by simply modifying one or several atoms, functional groups, or other groups," said Liu Yuejin, vice-commissioner of China's National Narcotics Control Commission. "It will effectively prevent the massive abuse of fentanyl substances and illegal drug trafficking and smuggling activities, and contribute to global drug control with China's wisdom and power."

In December, as part of ongoing trade negotiations, Chinese president Xi Jinping promised U.S. president Donald Trump that his country would finally add the drugs to its schedule of controlled substances. The legal change was urgently needed because the PRC currently plays home to most of the factories which synthesize fentanyl, then distribute it to U.S. consumers either indirectly through Mexican cartels or directly through mail order.

Scheduling will permit Chinese law enforcement to crack down on these opioid producers. Importantly, by adding the full set of fentanyl derivatives to its controlled substances list, the Chinese government will be able to target those who previously avoided law enforcement by producing analogs with the same effect, but which were technically not yet illegal.

Such chemical sleight-of-hand is standard practice in the synthetic drug game, but a nightmare for regulators, who are often obliged to schedule analogs one at a time as opposed to wholesale. In the United States, legislation has been proposed by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) to facilitate faster scheduling, but it has stalled in Congress.