In an international game of Whac-A-Mol, this week China announced that it would be adding four lethal heroin-like narcotics to a list of controlled substances to help combat the growing opioid epidemic in America. The primary target of the ban is Carfentanil, one of the latest and deadliest synthetic opioids to show up in the United States.
Carfentanil is so deadly that an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person, and until recently, was best known as a tranquilizer for knocking out moose and elephants, or as a chemical weapon. Today you can find it on the streets in Ohio and Indiana.
For decades before being discovered by drug dealers, Carfentanil has been banned from the battlefield under the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, last year drug dealers discovered that large profits could be made by cutting fentanyls into illicit drugs, and US customs authorities seized in the first six months of 2016, 295 pounds of a substance they had rarely seen before.
And overdose rates have sky rocketed.
It is clear that U.S. opioid demand is driving the development and proliferation of a new class of deadly synthetic drugs. According to the DEA, most synthetic drugs like Carfentanil that end up in the United States arrive from China – synthetic opioids that are not widely abused in their country of origin. Produced by nimble chemists to stay one step ahead of Chinese law, drugs like Carfentanil proliferate as soon as a similar substance is banned. For example, after Beijing tightened its focus on other fentanyls late last year, the AP documented how Chinese vendors began to actively market alternative opioids.
Ultimately, the fundamental qualities of the global political structure are making it impossible to fully address this problem. Portable substances spill across national borders, and the need to effectively manage their production permeates every State – even those who have no problem with the substance – as the capacity to manage global issues like drug development and consumption has not kept pace with the evolution of its complexity and danger.
Throughout history, autonomy has been paramount to sovereignty. The current international global governance structure is predicated on the idea of a Westphalian State, and until recently, the slow dispersion rates of people, knowledge, and objects did not necessitate a need for change. However, as the world is flattening, the distance between nations and the idea of a purely independent state is becoming less and less of a possibility. Where a cannon was laborious and difficult to move, newly developed drugs can be mailed via domestic postal services.
How do we fight an opioid epidemic in America when the drugs come in so quickly and easily through our own postal service? Without a unified, global plan, independent nation states will continue to play Whac-a-mole. And people will continue to die. We no longer live in the age of the isolated state, and we must change our global health laws protocols to reflect this reality.
Although the actions in China this week are greatly appreciated and highly cooperative, we must not forget that they are not a solution, but merely a temporary fix to a much larger, global issue.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.