US asks China for help stopping mail-order opioids

Tablets of the opioid-based Hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Tablets of the opioid-based Hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Portsmouth, Ohio. PHOTO: REUTERS

MEXICO CITY (AFP) - The United States has asked China to crack down on postal shipments of synthetic opioids, which President Donald Trump says are fuelling a US drug-abuse crisis, a State Department official said Wednesday (Dec 6).

Because synthetic opioids, such as the highly potent drug fentanyl, are hard to detect in the mail, fighting drug trafficking into the United States has become "a completely different ballgame", said Mr James Walsh of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Walsh this week met Chinese counter-narcotics officials in Cancun, Mexico, on the sidelines of a global conference on drug addiction.

It was a follow-up to conversations between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Trump, who declared the US opioid crisis a national public health emergency in October and said the US needed to stop "the flood of cheap and deadly fentanyl" coming from China.

Mr Trump and Mr Xi discussed the opioid crisis when they met in Beijing last month.

Ahead of that visit, Chinese officials disputed Mr Trump's claim that most US-bound fentanyl comes from China.

But Mr Walsh said his Chinese counterparts were receptive to working to curb shipments of opioids produced in Chinese labs.

"We've been asking China to get better control on their production, better assistance with monitoring their mail that's being shipped either to Mexico or the United States," he told AFP. "We've had very good conversations."

Drug overdoses have surged in the US, killing 64,000 people last year. Most of those deaths were caused by opioids - a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers, heroin and synthetics such as fentanyl.

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, which has made fighting it a challenge. "One kilogram can supply a million pills," Mr Walsh said. "So you can just ship that in a FedEx box."

He said US officials were also in talks with Mexican counterparts on ways to crack down on opioids made in China and trafficked into the US by Mexican drug cartels.

The traditional tactic of using dogs to sniff out drugs has not worked with fentanyl, which is so powerful it can kill them if they come into contact with it.

"We have a lot of experts working on" new canine training techniques and screening technology, he said.