(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Of all people, you wouldn’t expect President Donald Trump to be shy about taking credit for his achievements. When it comes to China’s role in America’s opioid crisis, though, he’s been uncharacteristically modest.
Mail carriers including FedEx Corp., Amazon.com Inc., United Parcel Service Inc., and the U.S. Postal Service were ordered to search for and refuse deliveries of the synthetic opioid fentanyl from China in a tweet-storm last week. “President Xi said this would stop – it didn’t,” Trump wrote, echoing a theme from earlier this month:
That’s not the case, the head of China’s narcotics regulator Liu Yuejin told Bloomberg News. Since the country listed all fentanyl-style drugs as controlled substances April 1, in accordance with a December agreement between Trump and President Xi Jinping, there’s been no evidence of new underground fentanyl production and no legitimately produced drugs have ended up in illicit channels, Liu said.
One could be tempted to doubt his assertion, after the Chinese government failed to halt such exports since a crackdown brokered under the Obama administration in 2015. But if President Trump listened to his own officials, he’d hear a similar story.
“The numbers have dropped precipitously this year, so we’re talking about only pounds of fentanyl that we have encountered so far this year” coming by post from China, Thomas Overacker, an official at Customs and Border Protection, told a Congressional hearing last month. That compares with close to 2,000 pounds of fentanyl cut with other ingredients coming over the U.S. border with Mexico, he said.
Traditionally, much of the fentanyl coming from Mexico has been manufactured there using precursor chemicals imported from China – but that, too, appears to be changing.
The newest challenge for drug enforcement appears to be Mexican drug cartels moving into the void left as China’s crackdown efforts have halted shipments, Matthew Donahue, a regional director with the Drug Enforcement Administration told the hearing. The administration “is continuing to see a shift from importation of precursor chemicals for the production of fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances to the manufacturing of precursor chemicals within Mexico itself,” he said. “This is an alarming development.”
That's echoed by the U.S. Postal Service, too. Some 153 of 185 seizures of synthetic opioids this fiscal year were mailed from domestic post-boxes, rather than sent from foreign countries such as China, Gary Barksdale, chief inspector of the USPS, said in testimony.
Why should Trump’s deal with China be succeeding where previous efforts have failed? As we’ve written, the problem in the past has been that China designated individual chemicals as controlled substances. That meant that as soon as a new formula was registered, Chinese drug labs came up with another one to skirt the regulations, leaving officials there and in the U.S. caught in a game of Whac-A-Mole. The December deal, on the other hand, scheduled the entire class of fentanyl-type substances, ensuring a much more comprehensive ban.
It’s certainly too soon to roll out the “mission accomplished” banner. As my colleague Shuli Ren has written, China was almost entirely ignorant of its role in America’s opioid-addiction crisis until the Trump-Xi deal was announced last year. Previous breakthroughs have turned into squibs, too: More than half of U.S. deaths from synthetic opioids have occurred since China’s initial crackdown in 2015.
In addition, the migration crisis on the southern U.S. border has diverted funding and personnel, and complicated the role of drug enforcement. So it’s possible that even with a diminished Chinese role, America’s opioid crisis persists, with the entire supply chain controlled by Mexican cartels.
Still, the early indications of success in reducing shipments across the Pacific count as a significant policy win for the Trump administration. That should be receiving more attention, especially at a time when a proposed $11.5 billion settlement from the Sackler family and its drugmaker Purdue Pharma LP is promising a way to help cover the fallout from addiction to the company’s opioid OxyContin.
It could be that 2019 is the year when the U.S. finally started to turn the tide in the opium war ravaging the Trump-voting heartlands of the Midwest and Appalachia. What’s more, the success may be coming as a result of that most improbable activity, cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese governments.
That may not fit President Trump’s narrative of an ever-escalating great power contest with Beijing, but it should still count as an unlikely victory for his diplomacy. He should try boasting about it.
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David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.
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