It’s one of the strongest opioids in circulation, so deadly an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person. Until July, when drug users in the United States started overdosing on carfentanil, the substance was best known for knocking out moose and elephants – or as a chemical weapon.
Despite the dangers, Chinese vendors offer to sell carfentanil openly online, for worldwide export, no questions asked, an investigation has found. The investigation identified 12 Chinese businesses that said they would export carfentanil to the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Australia for as little as US$2,750 a kilogram.
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. In China, the top global source of synthetic drugs, carfentanil is not a controlled substance. The US government is pressing China to blacklist it, but Beijing has yet to act.
“We can supply carfentanil . for sure,” a saleswoman from Jilin Tely Import and Export Co. wrote in broken English in a September email. “And it’s one of our hot sales product.”
The investigation did not include ordering drugs and the products offered were not tested to find out if they were genuine.
China’s Ministry of Public Security declined multiple requests for comment.
For decades before being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were researched as chemical weapons by the US, Britain, Russia, Israel, China, the Czech Republic and India, according to publicly available documents. They are banned from the battlefield under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“It’s a weapon,” said Andrew Weber, US assistant secretary of defence for nuclear, chemical and biological defence programmes from 2009 to 2014. “Companies shouldn’t be just sending it to anybody.”
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 theatre in 2002.
The theatre siege prompted the US to develop strategies to counter carfentanil’s potential use as a tool of war or terrorism, according to Weber. “Countries that we are concerned about were interested in using it for offensive purposes,” he said. “We are also concerned that groups like ISIS could order it commercially.”
Later, dealers discovered that vast profits could be made by cutting fentanyl into illicit drugs. In fiscal year 2014, US authorities seized just 3.7kg of fentanyl. This fiscal year, through mid-July alone, they seized 134.1kg, Customs and Border Protection data shows. Overdose rates have been skyrocketing.
The DEA 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 top 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 1 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.”
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 U.S. were down 60 per cent, DEA data obtained by the AP shows.
Several vendors contacted in September were willing to export carfentanil but refused to provide the far less potent acetylfentanyl.
Seven companies, however, 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.
Several vendors recommended shipping by EMS, the express mail service of state-owned China Postal Express Logistics Co.
“EMS is a little slower than Fedex or DHL but very safe, with more than a 99 per cent pass rate,” a Yuntu Chemical representative wrote in an email.
EMS declined to comment. A Yuntu representative hung up the phone when contacted by the AP and did not reply to emails. Soon after, the company’s website vanished.
Carfentanil used in 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis
In 2002, Russian Special Forces turned to carfentanil after a three-day stand-off with Chechen separatists, who had taken more than 800 people hostage in a Moscow theatre. They used an aerosol version of carfentanil, along with the less potent remifentanil, sending it through air vents, according to a paper by British scientists who tested clothing and urine samples from three survivors.
The strategy worked, but more than 120 hostages died from the effects of the chemicals.
Olga Dolotova, an engineer who survived the attack, remembers seeing white plumes descending before she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she found herself on a bus packed with bodies. “It was such a horror just to look at it,” she said. “Nobody was moving. They put the people there like dolls.”
The theatre siege raised concerns about carfentanil as a tool of war or terrorism, and prompted the US to develop strategies to counter its use, according to Weber, the former Defence Department chemical weapons expert.
The US, Russia, China, Israel, the Czech Republic, Britain and India are among the countries that have assessed carfentanil and related compounds for offensive or defensive applications, according to publicly available documents and academic studies.
“Countries that we are concerned about were interested in using it for offensive purposes,” Weber said. “We are also concerned that groups like ISIS could order it commercially.”
Weber considered a range of alarming scenarios, including the use of carfentanil to knock out and take troops hostage, or to kill civilians in a closed environment like a train station. He added that it is important to raise awareness about the threat from carfentanil trafficking.
“Shining sunlight on this black market activity should encourage Chinese authorities to shut it down,” he said.
Fentanyls also have been described as ideal tools for assassination — lethal and metabolized quickly so they leave little trace.
Agents from Israel’s secret intelligence service, Mossad, sprayed a substance believed to be a fentanyl analog into the ear of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal as he walked down a street in Amman, Jordan, in a botched 1997 assassination attempt.
The US began researching fentanyl as an incapacitating agent in the 1960s and, by the 1980s, government scientists were experimenting with aerosolied carfentanil on primates, according to Neil Davison, the author of ‘Non-Lethal’ Weapons, who now works at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The US says it is no longer developing such chemical agents. But two state-owned companies in China have marketed “narcosis” dart guns, according to Michael Crowley, project coordinator at the University of Bradford’s Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project. He said the ammunition “might very well be fentanyl or an analog of fentanyl,” adding that in the 1990s, the US explored similar guns loaded with a form of fentanyl.
Among the problems with fentanyls is that the line between life and death is too thin.
“There is no incapacitating chemical agent that can be used in a tactical situation without extreme risk of injury or death to everybody in the room,” Crowley said.
Unprecedented cooperation from China
DEA officials say they are getting unprecedented cooperation from China in the fight against fentanyls, noting unusually deep information sharing in what can be a fractious bilateral relationship.
The DEA has “shared intelligence and scientific data” with Chinese authorities about controlling carfentanil, according to Russell Baer, a DEA special agent in Washington.
“I know China is looking at it very closely,” he said. “That’s been the subject of discussion in some of these high-level meetings.”
Last October, China added 116 synthetic drugs to its controlled substances list, which had a profound impact on global narcotics supply chains. Acetylfentanyl, for example, is a weaker cousin of carfentanil that China included on last year’s list of restricted substances. Six months later, monthly seizures of acetylfentanyl in the US had plummeted by 60 per cent, DEA data shows.
Several vendors contacted in September were willing to export carfentanil, but refused to ship the far less potent acetylfentanyl. A Jilin Tely Import Export Co. saleswoman offered carfentanil for $3,800 a kilogram, but wrote, with an apologetic happy face, that she couldn’t ship acetylfentanyl because it “is regulated by the government now.”
Contacted, the company said it had never shipped carfentanil to North America and had offered to sell it just “to attract the customer.”
Seven companies offered to sell acetylfentanyl despite the ban, however. Five offered fentanyl and two offered alpha-PVP, commonly known as flakka, which also are controlled substances in China.
Liu Feng, deputy general manager of Zhejiang Haiqiang Chemical Co., said his company sent a large order of carfentanil to India last year and has sold smaller amounts to trading companies in Shanghai. He said they also had put false labels on packages for customers.
“Everyone in the industry knows it,” he said. “But we just do not say it.”
Another company went out of its way to recommend acetylfentanyl. “Our customer feedback that the effect is also very good,” Wonder Synthesis emailed in broken English. The company says it has warehouses in the US, Europe, Russia and India.
Wonder Synthesis did not respond to emails seeking comment and the phone number provided did not work. Its published address in Beijing leads to a beauty parlour.
The problem with carfentanil is not limited to the US. In late June, Canadian authorities seized a kilogram of carfentanil shipped from China in a box labelled printer accessories.
The powder contained 50 million lethal doses, according to the Canada Border Services Agency – more than enough to wipe out the entire population of the country. It was hidden inside bright blue cartridges labelled as ink for HP LaserJet printers. “Keep out of reach of children,” read the labels, in Chinese.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Vancouver sealed themselves inside hazmat suits, binding their wrists, ankles, zippers, and face masks with fat yellow tape. With large oxygen containers on their backs and chunky respirators, it looked as if they were preparing for a trip to the moon.
“Cocaine or heroin, we know what the purpose is,” said Allan Lai, an officer-in-charge at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Calgary, who is helping oversee the criminal investigation. “With respect to carfentanil, we don’t know why a substance of that potency is coming into our country.”
In August and September, high-level delegations of Chinese and US drug enforcement authorities met to discuss joint efforts on synthetic opioids, but neither meeting produced any substantive announcement on carfentanil.
Nonetheless, some Chinese vendors are already bracing for a new wave of controls. In an email, Wonder Synthesis wrote, “If you need any chems, just hurry to buy.”