SHANGHAI - The United States government is concerned that carfentanil, a powerful opioid that has caused a rash of overdose deaths, could be used as a chemical weapon and has discussed the matter with China, the State Department said Friday in response to an Associated Press investigation.
"Agents like carfentanil could be used in lethal doses that would make them comparable to traditional nerve agents, raising concerns that they could be used as chemical weapons," a State Department official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
U.S. officials addressed the issue with their Chinese counterparts at the G-20 summit of world leaders in September, and again last week at a scheduled meeting on law enforcement co-operation, the official said.
The AP identified 12 Chinese vendors willing to export carfentanil to the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and Australia, in quantities that could kill millions of people, no questions asked.
"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."
Carfentanil is so toxic an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person, but it is not a controlled substance in China. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is also pressing China to blacklist carfentanil, but Beijing has yet to act, leaving a substance whose lethal qualities have been compared with Venomous Agent X, or VX, to flow unabated into foreign markets.
The AP did not actually buy any drugs, or test whether the substances on offer were genuine.
China's Ministry of Public Security did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Carfentanil is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, a related drug that itself is up to 50 times stronger than heroin. Carfentanil's only routine use is as an anesthetic for elephants and other large animals. It burst into view this summer as the latest scourge in an epidemic of opioid abuse that has killed tens of thousands in the U.S. alone.
Since July, there have been 19 deaths related to carfentanil in just the Detroit area, local health officials said Thursday. On Friday, Canadian health officials announced that carfentanil was found in the bodies of two young men who took lethal overdoses of the drug.
China is the primary source of fentanyls and fentanyl precursors that end up in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, according to a July DEA intelligence brief. Even as China's carfentanil manufacturers operate openly, efforts to tighten control of fentanyls under the Chemical Weapons Convention are intensifying.
Carfentanil and chemicals like it are already banned from the battlefield under the convention, which came into force in 1997. Now 24 countries, including Australia, the U.S., Canada and Switzerland, are pushing for discussion on whether the convention could be used to block their use for domestic law enforcement as well.
"We believe these chemicals pose a serious challenge for the convention," the states said in a joint statement in December. The letter noted "inherent safety risks that include potential long-term health effects."
For decades before being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were researched as chemical weapons by the U.S., U.K., Russia, Israel, China, the Czech Republic and India, according to publicly available documents.
"It's a weapon," said Andrew Weber, assistant secretary of defence for nuclear, chemical and biological defence programs from 2009 to 2014. "Companies shouldn't be just sending it to anybody."
Forms of fentanyl are suspected in an unsuccessful 1997 attempt by Mossad agents to kill a Hamas leader in Jordan, and were used to lethal effect by Russian forces against Chechen separatists who took hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theatre in 2002.
The theatre siege prompted the U.S. to develop strategies to counter carfentanil's potential use as a tool of war or terrorism, said Weber. "Countries that we are concerned about were interested in using it for offensive purposes," he said. "We are also concerned that groups like ISIS could order it commercially."
More recently, dealers discovered that vast profits could be made by cutting fentanyls into illicit drugs. In fiscal year 2014, U.S. authorities seized just 3.7 kilograms (8.1 pounds) of fentanyl. This fiscal year, through just mid-July, they seized 134.1 kilograms (295 pounds), Customs and Border Protection data show. Overdose rates have been skyrocketing.
Delegations of top Chinese and U.S. drug enforcement officials met in August and September to discuss opioids, but failed to produce a substantive announcement on carfentanil.
"I know China is looking at it very closely," said Russell Baer, a DEA special agent in Washington.
U.S. lawmakers are also looking for ways of cracking down on illegal imports — though it is unlikely Congress will pass any legislation this year. Rep. Daniel Donovan, Jr., a Republican from New York, introduced a bill recently that would increase sentences for traffickers of opioids, including carfentanil. It would also give the DEA power to issue emergency orders to classify new synthetic drugs for higher penalties. In a statement, Donovan cited the AP investigation.
"We have to get fentanyl and its variants - especially carfentanil - and its traffickers off the streets immediately," Donovan said. "They are, quite literally, killing people every day."
Last October, China added 116 synthetic drugs to its controlled substances list. Acetylfentanyl, a weak fentanyl variant, was among them. Six months later, monthly seizures of acetylfentanyl in the U.S. were down 60 per cent, DEA data obtained by the AP shows.
Several vendors contacted in September were willing to export carfentanil but refused to provide the far less potent acetylfentanyl.
Seven companies, however, offered to sell acetylfentanyl despite the ban. Five offered fentanyl and two offered alpha-PVP, commonly known as flakka, which are also controlled substances in China.
Several vendors recommended shipping by EMS, the express mail service of state-owned China Postal Express & Logistics Co.
"EMS is a little slow than Fedex or DHL but very safe, more than 99% pass rate," a Yuntu Chemical Co. representative wrote in an email.
EMS declined comment. A Yuntu representative hung up the phone when contacted by the AP and did not reply to emails. Soon after, the company's website vanished.
Butler reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Aritz Parra in Shanghai, Paisley Dodds in London, Matthew Lee, Jack Gillum and Maria Danilova in Washington and news researchers Fu Ting in Shanghai and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.
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