Chemical weapon for sale in China’s unregulated narcotics industry
One of the strongest opioids in circulation - which can also be used as a chemical weapon - is being offered openly for sale online from China, an investigation has discovered.
Carfentanil is so deadly an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person, and until July, when reports of overdoses began to surface in the US, it was best known for knocking out moose and elephants.
Despite the dangers, Chinese vendors offer to sell carfentanil for worldwide export, no questions asked, an Associated Press investigation found.
AP identified 12 Chinese businesses that said they would export carfentanil to the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Belgium and Australia for as little as 2,750 US dollars a kilogramme.
Carfentanil burst into view this summer as the latest scourge in an epidemic of opioid abuse that has killed tens of thousands in the US alone.
Carfentanil in a printer ink cartridge
In China, the leading global source of synthetic drugs, carfentanil is not a controlled substance. The US government is pressing the Chinese to blacklist it, but Beijing has yet to act.
"We can supply carfentanil ... for sure," a saleswoman from Jilin Tely Import and Export wrote in broken English in an email. "And it's one of our hot sales product."
The AP did not order any drugs or test whether the products on offer were genuine.
China's Ministry of Public Security declined requests for comment.
For decades, before being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were researched as chemical weapons by the US, UK, Russia, Israel, China, the Czech Republic and India, according to publicly available documents.
They are banned from the battlefield under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Webpage offering the powerful opioid carfentanil for sale
Carfentanil is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, a related drug that is itself up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
Forms of fentanyl are suspected in an unsuccessful 1997 attempt by Mossad agents to kill a Hamas leader in Jordan, and were used to lethal effect by Russian forces against Chechen separatists who took hundreds of hostages at a Moscow cinema in 2002.
Later, dealers discovered that vast profits could be made by cutting fentanyls into illicit drugs. In the fiscal year 2014, US authorities seized just 3.7kg of fentanyl. This fiscal year, through to mid-July, they seized 134.1kg, Customs and Border Protection data shows. Overdose rates have been rocketing.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration has "shared intelligence and scientific data" with China about controlling carfentanil, according to Russell Baer, a DEA special agent in Washington.
"I know China is looking at it very closely," he said. Delegations of senior Chinese and US drug enforcement officials met in August and September to discuss opioids, but failed to produce a substantive announcement on carfentanil.
China is not blind to the key role its chemists play in the opioid supply chain. Most synthetic drugs that end up in the US come from China, according to the DEA.
China already has controlled fentanyl and 18 related compounds, but despite periodic crackdowns, people willing to skirt the law are easy to find in China's vast, freewheeling chemicals industry.
Vendors said they lied on customs forms, guaranteed delivery to countries where carfentanil is banned and volunteered strategic advice on sneaking packages past law enforcement.
"The government should impose very serious limits, but in reality in China it's so difficult to control because if I produce 1kg or 2kg, how will anyone know?" said Xu Liqun, president of Hangzhou Reward Technology, which offered to produce carfentanil to order. "They cannot control you, so many products, so many labs."
This combination of images from a 1997 report by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows photos from the testing of fentanyl-based anesthetics delivered via felt projectiles
Last October, China added 116 synthetic drugs to its controlled substances list. Acetylfentanyl, a weak fentanyl variant, was among them. Six months later, monthly seizures of acetylfentanyl in the US were down 60%, DEA data shows.
Several vendors contacted in September were willing to export carfentanil but refused to provide the far less potent acetylfentanyl.
Seven companies offered to sell acetylfentanyl despite the ban. Five offered fentanyl and two offered alpha-PVP, commonly known as flakka, which are also controlled substances in China.