Can the Supply of Fentanyl and Heroin from China and Mexico be Slowed?

There were two interesting pieces published today (February 17, 2017) in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times about controlling the supply of opioids into the US.   In the NYT, Sam Quinones, the author Dreamland argues that finishing the wall on the US/Mexican border will not make much of an impact on the flow of black-tar heroin into the US.  The WSJ, on the other hand, sees some positive moves by China to control its export of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil.  Much of the wholesale export of these chemicals from China is directed at Mexico for ultimate delivery to the US.

As the supply of legally prescribed opioids are targeted for reduction, those already addicted find themselves buying fake pain pills or heroin on the street.  Over the last few years, more and more of those are laced with fentanyl or worse, carfentanil which is "10,000 times more potent as morphine and is used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large animals." (WSJ, 2/17/17) Yesterday, China added four synthetic opioids to its list of controlled substances after the US government urged it do so.

The move by the Chinese closes a loophole that is hard to believe was ever allowed to exist. Fentanyl was always considered a controlled substance, but analog substances that mirror the effect of fentanyl were loosely regulated, allowing for their legal export.  The analogues that the Chinese are adding to their list of controlled substances of:  carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl and valeryl fentanyl.  These opioids are often used to produce counterfeit pain pills or to boost the potency of cut heroin.  

Quinones' op-ed piece illustrates that there is a well worn path of Mexicans coming through legal border crossings.   One of the most common methods for smuggling is to hollow out the soles of shoes and fill them with the black tar heroin, and then just walk or drive across the border with their 1-2 pounds of heroin.

“In Sinaloa, he said, cobblers do a thriving side business cutting compartments in the soles and heels of shoes and filling them with heroin. There’s a market for this work because so many farmers and ranchers — conservative folks, respectful of tradition — subsidize their small-time agriculture with drug money.

Almost every other farmer for miles around did the same, he said. He had smuggled drugs 50 times before he was caught.”

— Quinones, Sam, New York Times 2/17/17

While he also reports that some larger volumes are shipped by truck, he implies that the majority of Mexican heroin is smuggled in one small shipment at a time.   The density and pliability of the drug makes it easy to deliver high dollar volumes of the drug.  Just one smuggler will earn $12,000 for their shoe-smuggling efforts.  The call it "a la hormiga", or ant like smuggling.    

The potency of fentanyl and carfentanil make them great candidates for this kind of smuggling as well.  

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