US-China, Beijing undertakes to cooperate on drugs: what is Fentanyl

Identikit of the synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin which claims thousands of victims

The Fentanyl was one of the main topics at the center of the San Francisco summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. And the USA has received a first useful result: Beijing’s commitment to fight against illegal exports ofcheap synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin which claims tens of thousands of victims every year in the USA and to curb the export of the substances necessary to produce it. In fact, at the end of the summit, China committed to creating a working group to increase cooperation in the fight against drugs. But what is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl, or fentanyl, is the most widespread molecule among the new synthetic opioids that have been causing havoc overseas for years: in 2022 alone, over 110 thousand overdose deaths were recorded in the USA, 66% of which are caused by synthetic opioids. For comparison, 58,220 Americans lost their lives in the entire Vietnam War. In the EU, as the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson recently underlined, fentanyl is still present on a very small scale, but it is also produced in Europe. Last year, European police forces seized around 400 laboratories in Europe, capable of producing mainly methamphetamine, but also fentanyl. In one case, in Latvia, about 5kg of fentanyl was seized, enough to “kill 2.5 million people, more than the population” of the whole of Latvia, she explained. Fentanyl is much more potent than heroin and is infinitely easier to transport because smaller quantities are needed. And to produce it you don’t need poppy fields or coca plantations hidden in the Amazon jungle: you just need the chemical precursors, of which the Chinese industry is the world’s leading producer.

100 times more powerful than morphine

Fentanyl, explains the American Goddess, is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a pain reliever (pain relief) and anesthetic. It’s about 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic. On the road in the States it is called by various names: Apache, China Girl, China Town, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Jackpot, King Ivory, Murder 8, Poison and Tango & Cash. It is snorted, smelt, smoked, taken orally via pills or tablets, put on paper towels or patches, sold alone or in combination with heroin and other substances. It has been identified in counterfeit pills, which mimic drugs such as oxycodone.

Like other opioid analgesics, fentanyl produces effects such as relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction and respiratory depression. Overdose can cause stupor, changes in pupil size, clammy skin, cyanosis, coma, and respiratory failure, leading to death. The presence of three of these symptoms such as coma, pinpoint pupils and respiratory depression “strongly suggests opioid intoxication,” the DEA reports.

First victims in Europe

The arrival of fentanyl in the Old Continent is also reported by the Emcdda, the EU observatory on drug addiction. It has already begun to claim victims, for now especially in Northern Europe. The 2023 report informs that recent signals, especially from the Baltics, suggest increased availability and harms (including drug-induced deaths) linked to these substances, in particular the fentanyl derivative carfentanyl and the potent benzimidazole group of opioids, which includes drugs such as isotonitazene, protonitazene and metonitazene. Synthetic opioids, the Emcdda recalls, are often very potent, meaning that a small amount may be sufficient to produce a large number of street doses and may pose an increased risk of potentially lethal poisoning. Synthetic opioids, the EMCDDA continues, have been linked to drug-induced deaths, with recent reports from Estonia and Lithuania indicating that these drugs now account for a “significant” share of overdose deaths in these countries. New preliminary data from 2023 indicates that mortality related to benzimidazole opioids “is increasingly being detected in Latvia,” which “represents a worrying development.”

The spread of synthetic opioids in Europe should not be taken lightly: in the United States of America in 2022 over 110 thousand people died from overdoses, in many cases due to these molecules which, being very powerful, they are more difficult to dose. They have become the new ‘cash-cow’ of the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels, two of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world: for traffickers, as the deputy head of the DEA George Papadopoulos said in a hearing at the Committee on Internal Security of the House of Representatives, the profit margins are immense. Fentanyl is the Sinaloa Cartel’s new ‘white gold’, in particular from the ‘Chapitos’ wing, the sons of Joaquin Guzman Loera (Ivan Guzman Salazar, Alfredo Guzman Salazar and Ovidio Guzman Lopez), ‘el Chapo’, who is serving a life sentence in the Adx maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado, known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies. To the signs producing a pill containing fentanyl costs just “10 cents”, but retails for between “10 and 30 dollars”. Result: Mexican cartels rake in “billions of dollars” from synthetic opioids. Without even having to worry about planting poppies in the mountains of Sinaloa.