First-ever U.S. indictments of Chinese fentanyl makers show failures of opioid policy

Long, sweeping investigations of foreign-made fentanyl unveiled Tuesday affirm that the War on Drugs is a forever war.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces criminal indictments of Chinese fentanyl traffickers, flanked by law enforcement officials who partnered on the investigations. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces criminal indictments of Chinese fentanyl traffickers, flanked by law enforcement officials who partnered on the investigations. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

American officials want two Chinese nationals arrested for allegedly manufacturing and importing large quantities of fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that is driving the U.S. overdose epidemic that began in the 2000s to the explosive levels of fatalities recorded in the past few years.

The case, announced Tuesday by senior Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C., while White House adviser Kellyanne Conway looked on from the wings, marks the first time the United States has criminally indicted Chinese citizens over fentanyl.

But even if Chinese authorities were to arrest and successfully prosecute the alleged drug smugglers — something Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein refused to comment on — the nature of the marketplace for illicit drugs suggests that someone else would spring up in their place to feed the demand for narcotics.

“This is about two major manufacturers of fentanyl. There are many others out there,” Rosenstein said Tuesday. “That’s why when we talk to the Chinese, we’re not talking just about support of a particular investigation, we’re talking about a broader approach [to] empower the Chinese authorities to shut down all these labs preemptively.”

The indictments announced Tuesday stem from a pair of drug busts in Mississippi and North Dakota. Helped by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, federal prosecutors in each state say they’ve proven the recovered fentanyl in the cases was manufactured in Chinese laboratories and shipped into the United States illegally.

Fentanyl is often described as 50 times more potent than heroin, making it a smuggler’s dream: Tiny physical quantities return large revenues, and the synthetic chemical is dramatically cheaper to produce than plant-based heroin culled from fields of poppies that must be guarded, tended, and harvested. The drug’s combination of easy manufacturing and deadly potency has created some shocking statistics. Some 5,544 Americans died from Fentanyl in 2014, according to CDC estimates — but that annual number had risen to 20,000 by last year, Rosenstein said.

This spike in exotic, easily smuggled alternatives to a drug people used to use is a predictable result of the United States’ prohibition policy on narcotics, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies told ThinkProgress.

“Restricting supply doesn’t help when demand is still there. You end up with more compact, easier to smuggle, and more powerful commodities,” said Tree. “It’s like how alcohol prohibition turned a nation of beer and wine drinkers into a nation of liquor drinkers. If you’re a bootlegger, the last thing you want to smuggle is beer.”

The huge profits available from successful fentanyl smuggling are only possible because U.S. narcotics policies make it impossible for addicts to get the drugs outside the black market — a politically counterintuitive truth Tree calls “the iron law of prohibition.” The alternative approach of making heroin available by prescription to those addicts who prove insusceptible to treatment and diversion is already being implemented in Canada, where doctors and policymakers alike believe a person can be far more easily brought out of the cycle of addiction if they don’t have to hit rock bottom before realizing they want to make a change.

One Canadian doctor involved with such a clinic told Vox in January that none of the 200 patients he’s treated with prescription heroin and wraparound support programs has died since 2011, and claimed no such patient across the four countries currently trying the policy has died under care.

Rosenstein and the other law enforcement officials at DOJ headquarters Tuesday are not convinced that the sin of overdose deaths lies in prohibition. The major law enforcement operation they unveiled allows officials to seize huge amounts of cash and put a spotlight on smugglers — a scene reminiscent of the Eliot Ness age of American policing, when cops smashed stills and chased high-profile bootleggers, without ever really stemming the flow of liquor.

“We’re doing this scores and scores of times, again and again, but have we really saved anybody?”

The contrast of high-drama busts and low-traction impact on the long term nature of drug markets is a familiar bugaboo for Terry Blevins, a former sworn officer turned security consultant whose law enforcement career traces back to the 1980s. Now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership network of reform-minded cops, judges, and prosecutors, Blevins said the kind of complex, impressive policework that went into the cases Rosenstein brought to the public on Tuesday is laudable, yet tragic.

“I think we should really go after these people that are smuggling this and bringing it in,” Blevins told ThinkProgress. “But it’s just a shame because it’s just a drop in the bucket. The market is still going to be there.”

“It’s really frustrating for those of us that maybe aren’t in law enforcement anymore and can sort of step back and take a broader view of this. When you’re in law enforcement, you’re results-based. Lining up the keys of cocaine, bundles of marijuana, the cash, and the guns — all of that is results-based,” Blevins said. “So what frustrates me is it seems like we’re doing this scores and scores of times, again and again, but have we really saved anybody? Have we really changed anybody’s life? I don’t think we have. We just do the same thing over and over again.”

Rosenstein said he would not comment on whether or not Chinese authorities had arrested or would arrest the two men indicted by the agency. But even if they do, the basic economics of modern China guarantee there’d be a new pipeline opened up almost immediately.

“China can’t even police its own food supply. People are being sold fake eggs, being sold gutter oil as cooking oil, all kinds of food scandals every single day,” Tree said. “You’ve got 300 million people who have benefited from economic reforms and are doing okay, and then a billion people behind them fighting and clawing for progress. Capitalist market forces are on steroids there. You’d need more than a totalitarian state to police this, you’d need Orwellian surveillance.”

Yet American lawmakers and law enforcement administrators have continued chasing the dragon of supply-side drug enforcement policy for decades already, despite similar failures in the war on cocaine manufacturers across Central and South America. Just this past April, then-Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John Kelly told reporters he hoped to double-down on the old, failed policy of spraying cocaine and poppy fields with pesticides as a means of tamping down production of drugs grown to feed North American demand.

President Donald Trump’s White House has made hay out of the opioid epidemic repeatedly, despite the president’s choice to largely ignore recommendations from his own blue-ribbon commission on the crisis earlier this year. As Conway’s quiet presence at Tuesday’s presser illustrates, the White House is looking to keep a close eye on their modern-day Untouchables — a reflection of both the staggering scope of the epidemic, and the  media attention paid to the sometimes overlapping geographies of Trump support and opioid abuse.

The administration remains convinced that investigations like these can break the economics of the drug trade in ways no prohibition policy has before, Rosenstein said.

“One of the points I’ve made in all of my meetings with our U.S. Attorneys throughout the country is these are the kinds of cases we want them working on,” he said. “When you have an overdose death in your community, don’t stop with the immediate local distributors. Find out where the drugs are coming from, how they’re getting into their community. And if we can shut down these labs in China, we can save hundreds, maybe thousands of lives.”

The same argument holds for historians who study alcohol prohibition. It did push down the number of people who drank, they note, just as research shows drug prohibition tamps down the number of people who will use. But what is available to use, for those who persist, is deadlier and cheaper. And knocking out some portion of the supply chain will only kick cause-and-effect forces into play that exacerbate the crisis.

“If we miraculously stopped 50 percent of all the heroin coming into this country, how are traffickers going to respond?” Tree said. “No brainer: More fentanyl to stretch the remaining amount of heroin and stretch their profits. And more deaths.”

Such pragmatic cynicism about the display of policework and international cooperation that went into Tuesday’s announcement used to bother Blevins in his early days as a cop in Arizona.

“As a young officer, I saw the other crime connected to drug trafficking and drug use, and I didn’t understand so much that the users are more victims than they are criminals. It made sense to me at the time: Criminals are involved in this, and we need to stamp it out,” said Blevins.

But almost forty years later, after watching his colleagues “beat our heads against a brick wall” for decades without seeing long-term progress, the ex-cop is tired.

“We need to try something drastic, legalize a big portion of things that are controlled substances now and…treat the users as victims not as criminals.”

“We’re no further ahead than we were decades ago back when Nixon signed the bills that were the framework for our current drug laws. No further ahead,” Blevins said. “I feel like we need to try something drastic, legalize a big portion of things that are controlled substances now and really focus on education and providing treatment. We need to treat the users as victims not as criminals.”

Rosenstein’s teams used a sophisticated mix of tactics to build the cases announced at DOJ on Tuesday. From the first uniformed cop to respond to an overdose to the detectives who worked out the clues that pointed toward China, to the digital sleuths who tracked “dark web” transactions back to specific men and factories in China, it is as impressive a story of cunning and dedication as anything Hollywood could create. But for all his admiration of his fellow law enforcement professionals, Blevins said he just can’t see triumph here.

“This case in particular that we’re talking about, it’s just a matter of time before that void is filled with new producers, distributors, and sellers,” he said. “Are they going to tell me that the people that were using this fentanyl are not going to be able to get it from other sources all of a sudden? We’re going to save lives because, ‘Well ok I can’t get it from my supplier so I’m going to stop using?'”

“Even the guys that made these arrests — I don’t think they would look you in the eye and say, honestly, that we think the people who were getting the drugs these suppliers were providing will not be using drugs in the future,” Blevins added. “They know that’s not true.”