In a laboratory somewhere in China, a chemist is producing the fentanyl that will kill an opioid user in Maryland.
Within China’s vast drug industry, which produces much of the global supply of pharmaceutical ingredients, laboratories are taking advantage of cheap labor and lax oversight from Beijing to churn out new versions of the cheap, powerful and often deadly synthetic opioid faster than U.S. authorities can identify, classify and ban them.
From China — the largest producer of fentanyl worldwide — the drug is sent daily by plane or ship to Mexico, where traffickers and truckers push it along well-worn paths of illicit narcotics north to the United States. In Baltimore and other cities, well-established gangs push the powder and pills to consumers.
This much is known by U.S. authorities. They’re intercepting increasing amounts of fentanyl. But they’ve been unable to make much of a dent in the trade.
“It’s kind of the new Wild West,” said Katherine Tobin, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The government panel helped outline the route for Congress earlier this year.
Deployed to stop the supply are more U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors, better customs technology and undercover Drug Enforcement Administration interference. There’s also been some recent cooperation from Chinese authorities.
Still, no one knows how much gets by — until it lands in cities such as Baltimore, where record numbers of people are overdosing and dying. Fentanyl, often mixed with or mistaken for heroin, but 50 times more powerful, is now Baltimore’s deadliest killer.