China has taken real steps to crack down on synthetic opioid exports to the U.S., administration officials told Congress on Thursday, though they said more could be done to secure the mail system and crack down on web traffickers who partner with Mexican cartels.
Officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration and State Department said China has banned 175 ingredients in deadly fentanyl and its analogs — including 32 last week — and the U.S. plans to open a drug-enforcement office in Guangzhou next year to strengthen international cooperation.
The American officials also said their agencies are training foreign partners to disable cryptocurrency transactions that allow traffickers to sell their wares in dark corners of the internet.
“Is there much more to be done? Without a doubt, but I do think we’re making progress,” Kirsten D. Madison, assistant secretary for narcotics at the State Department, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on global health.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids fueled a 10 percent spike in drug overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017, according to federal data, and President Trump has personally urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to crack down on rogue manufacturers.
Skeptical House members said China needs to speed things up.
Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican and the subcommittee chairman, said the Chinese government cracks down on political dissent, labor unions and social media but seems to be taking incremental approach to reining in opioid manufacturers. He also pointed to Chinese officials who blame U.S. demand instead of producers within their borders.
“Are they really working with us?” Mr. Smith said.
Paul J. Knierim, the DEA’s deputy chief of operations, said Chinese cooperation has expanded “significantly” in recent years, though he’s willing to explore Mr. Smith’s idea of wielding the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. to sanction human-rights offenders around the globe, against foreign officials who ignore drug exportation or even profit from it.
Joseph D. Coronato, prosecutor of Ocean County, New Jersey, said anything federal authorities can do to improve its coordination with China and other nations would be appreciated. He’s seen a meteoric rise in the share of overdose deaths tied to what he calls the “synthetic storm.”
He urged federal agencies to expand their footprint worldwide, so the drugs are intercepted before they end up on doorsteps in his neighborhoods.
Administration officials testified that Congress can act now by securing the mail system against the inflow of fentanyl, since tiny powders wrapped in packages are harder to detect than rogue ships coming to port or drug mules hopping borders.
“The mail presents a profound challenge because it’s so diffuse,” Ms. Madison said. “It’s not the old-school way of trafficking or selling drugs.”
The House passed a bill this year the requires the U.S. Postal Service to demand advanced electronic data on 70 percent of foreign packages by the end of this year, and all packages by 2021.
Customs agents say the data is a critical tool in targeting packages for extra scrutiny and rooting out potent fentanyl from overseas, especially China.
GOP leaders said Thursday the Senate will vote on its own opioids legislation next week. The package includes the STOP Act, which mirrors the House effort to procure advanced data on foreign packages.
“This is a simple, common-sense and, quite frankly, long overdue reform,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and chief sponsor, on Thursday.