Chemical weapons for sale

Erika Kinetz

BEFORE being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were viewed as chemical weapons. One of the most powerful opioids in circulation, carfentanil is so deadly that an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin; carfentanil is chemically similar, but 100 times stronger than fentanyl itself. “It’s a weapon,” said Andrew Weber, 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 was first developed in the 1970s, and its only routine use is as an anesthetic for elephants and other large animals. Governments quickly targeted it as a potential chemical weapon. The chemicals are banned from the battlefield under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Users are dying of accidental respiratory arrest, and overdose rates have soared. China has not been blind to the key role its chemists play in the global opioid supply chain. Most synthetic drugs that end up in the United States come from China, either directly or by way of Mexico, according to the DEA. China already has placed controls on 19 fentanyl-related compounds. Adding carfentanil to that list is likely to only diminish, not eliminate, global supply.
Despite periodic crackdowns, people willing to skirt the law are easy to find in China’s vast, freewheeling chemicals industry, made up of an estimated 160,000 companies operating legally and illegally. Vendors said they lie on customs forms, guaranteed delivery to countries where carfentanil is banned and volunteered strategic advice on sneaking packages past law enforcement. A Yuntu representative hung up the phone when contacted by AP and did not reply to emails seeking comment. Soon after, the company’s website vanished.
Not all of the websites used to sell the drugs are based in China. At least six Chinese companies offering versions of fentanyl, including carfentanil, had IP addresses in the United States, hosted at US commercial web providers, AP found. In 2002, Russian special forces turned to carfentanil after a three-day standoff 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.
The US, Russia, China, Israel, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom 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 (Islamic State) 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. 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.”
Liu Feng, deputy general manager of Zhejiang Hai-qiang 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 United States, Europe, Russia and India.
— Courtesy: The Japan Times

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