The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is now the deadliest drug in America, causing an estimated 19,000 fatal overdoses in 2016. The DEA says most of the illicit fentanyl comes from China, either shipped directly to U.S. consumers through the mail or mixed with heroin that is smuggled across the southern border by Mexican drug cartels.
At New York City’s JFK airport, the point of entry for about 60 percent of the country’s international mail packages, seizures of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection agents increased from 7 in 2016 to 84 in 2017. All of the packages came from China. Nationwide, fentanyl seizures by CBP increased from 459 pounds in 2016 to 1,296 pounds last year.
In New York City, the DEA seized a record 193 kilos of fentanyl in 2017 — enough to kill the city’s population 11 times over. James Hunt, special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York field division, said it’s virtually impossible to stop the flow of fentanyl.
“The southwest border of the United States is porous,” Hunt said. “There’s thousands of miles of border. Thousands of trucks stop every day at the border. There’s millions and millions of parcels coming into the country every day, you can’t search them all. And traffickers know that.”
In October, the Department of Justice announced the first-ever indictments of two Chinese nationals accused of shipping fentanyl to the United States. VICE News contacted the Chinese government to ask about the fentanyl cases and was granted a rare interview with an official from the National Narcotics Control Commission, the Chinese equivalent of the DEA.
Yu Haibin, the agency’s director of precursor chemical control, said the two suspects indicted by the United States have not been arrested because there’s no evidence they violated Chinese law. Yu also said state-level marijuana legalization in the United States has contributed to the opioid crisis and the demand for the fentanyl.
“It’s hard to blame the crimes and abuses of fentanyl on one country alone,” Yu said. “This is not objective and overly arbitrary. Many states in the U.S. are still legalizing the use of marijuana. These trends certainly contribute to the abuse of fentanyl-type substances.”
This segment originally aired Dec. 21, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.