'We Are Shipping To The U.S.': Inside China's Online Synthetic Drug Networks
China banned fentanyl last year, but an NPR investigation reveals how Chinese vendors continue to market the chemicals used to make the drug on e-commerce and social media sites.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of the things that outgoing President Trump did during his term was pressure China over fentanyl. The drug kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, and much of it does come from China. So more than a year ago, China banned all types of fentanyl-related compounds. Now we have learned that its sellers have adapted. They are selling the individual chemicals that can be used to make the drug, and they are selling those ingredients more or less openly online. Our Beijing correspondent Emily Feng looked into this with help from data collected by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. Analyst Michael Lohmuller worked to gather that data. We spoke with both of them.
What exactly did China do in May of 2019?
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: They decided to ban any synthetic opioid that resembled fentanyl, which was a big departure from what they did before, of banning only specific compounds at a time. A few months after this ban, there was a big drug bust of a drug trafficking ring in China. One person was sentenced to death, other people sentenced to life in prison. But then there was quiet. And I was curious as to where all these people who had been selling fentanyl earlier had gone and what that world looked like now with this ban in place.
INSKEEP: How do you go about trying to find that seemingly underground world?
FENG: Well, that's where Michael comes in.
MICHAEL LOHMULLER: We were interested in seeing how the supply chains were operating from the point of production through sale to use. And when we were looking at the sale end of things, we found that a lot of this activity was occurring on the open, normal Internet. So we were looking into various advertisements that go up on these different marketplaces and platforms like Alibaba and other chemical and pharmaceutical marketplaces that companies were posting for - advertisers for and on other related substances. So we saw that it was all occurring very much out in the open.
INSKEEP: You're telling me that you could just go to a normal website, maybe not exactly Amazon, but Alibaba is a pretty big platform. I mean, you could go and find these things.
LOHMULLER: Yes. We observed that the bulk of fentanyl related sales activity appeared to be occurring on the clear Web on e-commerce websites such as Alibaba. But there are also other websites that vendors use. So they'll maintain independent websites, and they also appear to be using social media, particularly Facebook. It's all occurring very much out in the open.
INSKEEP: Was it easy for you to begin finding the exact locations, even, of people who were selling ingredients of fentanyl?
LOHMULLER: Vendors will rarely use the actual name for a drug. So you're not going to necessarily see an advertisement that says fentanyl for sale. But if you know that, and you know how these substances are being advertised, it's very easy to find even via a simple Google search. Many of these company names that are listed alongside these advertisements are real companies. You can look them up in the Chinese registry and find identifying information for them, including addresses.
INSKEEP: Emily Feng in Beijing, what did you do with that information?
FENG: Because Michael had found all of these vendors with addresses, I then went to see whether these people really existed in the places they said they were. And we found that many of them, in fact, were operating in clear daylight. Many of them had offices to do sales in the middle of quite large cities, in apartment buildings, in shopping malls, in cubicled office buildings. And it speaks to how difficult it is to stop fentanyl. I mean, these are compounds that are cheap to make. You can ship thousands of doses at a time undetected sometimes. And because of the Internet, these people can directly reach clients in the U.S. and Mexico and Europe from an apartment building in industrial China.
INSKEEP: Would you describe your visit to one of these places?
FENG: One of the main vendors that I visited calls himself Benjamin Chen online, and he was one of the more active vendors that C4ADS and NPR were able to identify. I was able to find him in remote Ningxia region, which is in China's northwest. And during the day, he worked as a sales person selling legitimate products used in the steelmaking process out there. But in addition to his regular job, he was also selling fentanyl precursors - so the type of chemical ingredients used to make fentanyl, as well as other synthetic drugs. When I met Chen in his employer's office, he was very nervous. He ushered me into a conference room, so his colleagues couldn't hear our conversation. And when I confronted him as a person who was secretly dealing deadly synthetic drugs on the Internet, he denied everything. You know, he said he himself was not involved in any of this. However, headshots of him linked to fentanyl precursor advertisements do match the man that I met. The phone number provided on these advertisements matches the one that Chen answered and that I texted him on, as did the address that he listed for some of his websites.
INSKEEP: So a bottom-line question then - has the flow of fentanyl from China to the United States been significantly interrupted in any way by China's law enforcement?
LOHMULLER: I think when it comes to finished fentanyl reaching the United States from China, I would speculate that there has been a decrease in that. It's tough to know for sure, though.
FENG: Well, we reached out to China for comment. We reached out to the National Narcotics Control Commission, which is in charge of enforcing this ban. They said that they had not seen any illegal sales of fentanyl-class chemicals online within Chinese borders since the ban. But due to the openness and cross-border nature of the Internet, any country would have a difficult time completely eradicating illegal information. So they're saying that they have not seen illegal activity, but they cannot rule out that it's not happening. What we've seen in China, though, is that some kind of online activity to sell fentanyl ingredients is still happening.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration does say that mail shipments of fentanyl from China to the U.S. have dropped dramatically since the ban. But the DEA also says that more and more of these fentanyl ingredients are being shipped from China to Mexico, where the ingredients are made into finished fentanyl and then sold again into the U.S. So the flow has not stopped, but the manner by which it's reaching the U.S. has changed. Realistically, synthetic drug vendors are finding ways to work around this ban and some ways that are technically legal, even if the effect is to be selling deadly, poisonous synthetic drugs to people outside of China.
INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Michael Lohmuller works for the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, which receives some of its funding from the U.S. government and which produced a study of fentanyl ingredients coming out of China. Thanks to both of you.
FENG: Thanks, Steve.
LOHMULLER: Thank you.
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