Fentanyl: the chemical euphoria of the Dragon

(To Gino Lanzara)

Addictions boast a history that allows us to understand the importance and role of the substances often accompanied by delirious alcoholic company, as happened with green fairy of absinthe, made fascinating, but no less addictive, by the Parisian bohemians; hallucinogens have opened wide the doors of the dreamlike in initiation ceremonies, they have made it possible to cross the boundaries that separated harsh realities from ethereal and reassuring insubstantiality. However, in the past, even in the face of habitual (or almost habitual) consumption of narcotic substances, no publications relating to public or private lawsuits have been found, nor is there any news of social marginalization, aimed instead at the more immediate alcoholic dependence.

Even without dwelling on the Islamic sect of the Assassins, whose denomination seems to derive from al-Hashīshiyyūnossia or those who are addicted to the consumption of hashish, whether we talk about it or not, there have always been psychotropic substances so much so that, on the threshold of the 1827th century, in addition to the discovery of morphine produced by Merck since 70.000, there could be at least 1897 medicines with a secret formula containing psychoactive substances, followed, in XNUMX, from the most powerful diacetyl morphine of Bayer, more commonly known as heroin, from the German heroisch, eroic, for how it made those who hired it feel (no less); Sigmund Freud himself, without much introspection, often made use of a mixture of wine and cocaine as an antidepressant. If the father of psychoanalysis had known this, he probably would have had the tonic sent by Dr. Pemberton of Atlanta which, with the addition of cola nuts and without cocaine, would have become the drink of several generations suspended between ruddy Santa Claus and disturbing beaches Californian, the (not surprisingly) Coca Cola.

In the 20s they come flappers, Great Gatsby and alcoholic prohibition that extends to drugs with the intention of preserving public health. There beat generation brings the psychedelic LSD, Syd Barrett's lysergic acid, antidepressants for troops traumatized by conflicts of unprecedented violence, up to the most modern substitutes, crack and ecstasy, passing through the addictions of TV stars like Doctor House and his hydrocodone. But it doesn't end there; The fentanyl leads to one third war of opium, in a historical nemesis which this time sees China exporting opioids and precursors to an increasingly weak and permeable West.

Approved by the FDA as an analgesic and anesthetic, fentanyl has become the leading cause of overdose deaths in the US: 68.000 in 2020, 82.000 in 2021, no less than 80.000 in 2022, with the drug company's $572 million conviction in the background Johnson & Johnson by the Cleveland District Court for triggering an opioid addiction epidemic.

Fentanyl, intended for cancer patients, is a synthetic opiate, a preparation which, capable of producing addiction, has an effect 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin. Paraphrasing Paracelsus, for whom it is the quantity that makes the poison, the lethality caused by just two mg of China Girl it does not justify the spasmodic search for euphoria.

Compared to aepidemic from heroin, the difference is that fentanyl comes into contact legally thanks to the prescriptions for pain therapies; prescriptions, however, often sold to strangers and which, when they become unavailable, lead to the purchase of Chinese imports. When the prescriptions expire, at least 6% of patients are unable to deprive themselves of them and turn to the black market: the drug market changes, so the demand for fentanyl grows and that of cocaine collapses, with price drops of up to 32%.

Fentanyl has entered the Sino-American tariff comparison as a protagonist, and has shown that it is not just a health problem1however largely overlooked. The most affected group is that of teenagers; in 2022, according to SAMHSA2 61,2 million young people over the age of 12 used drugs and another 9,2 million opioids; the human cost is added to the economic one, with losses, in 2020, equal to almost 1,5 trillion dollars. The fentanyl emergency has forced the Department of Homeland Security to ask the Pentagon to add 1.500 soldiers to the contingent of 2.400 Army and National Guard units already deployed on the southwestern border to allow the Customs and Border Protection to engage in illegal immigration.

The unknowns are different; the first concerns the official data, which do not distinguish the deaths caused by fentanyl prepared in clandestine laboratories from those determined by the product packaged by pharmaceutical companies; the second concerns a diffusion that can be justified by the Yankee ease with which opioids are prescribed for pain therapy.

The Belgian Paul Janssen, the inventor of fentanyl, certainly would never have imagined what would later happen, in fact a worsened and incorrect repetition of what occurred with the synthesis of codeine for respiratory ailments, although the fact that Janssen Pharmaceutical was , in 1985, the first Western company to establish a plant in the People's Republic of China helps to understand a few more details.

The picture, if possible, is even worse3, if you consider that fentanyl, to cut costs, is often cut with xylazine, a veterinary anesthetic that either leads to death by overdose or side effects of such severity as to have earned it the nickname of zombie drug.

Thanks to the pandemic, fentanyl and above all xylazine are spreading in Philadelphia in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Kensington: the black market is invaded by fentanyl, thanks also to Mexican cartels. To the internal responsibility of having allowed marketing and sale aggressive of opioids, for which Purdue Pharma, producer of the OxyContin subject of the TV series dopesick, declared bankruptcy, the illegality of importing and dealing from abroad is added.

It's a'Asia Connection with the help of Mexican cartels, multinationals linked to China and India, specialized in synthetic drugs; according to the DEA the Sinaloa Cartel has established itself as a major producer and trafficker of fentanyl from Mexico4 to the United States; Northern Mexico has changed, and instead of poppy fields there are now laboratories where a fentanyl pill costs $1 to make and $10 to sell. Whole areas are removed from Mexican sovereignty; the absence of economic and social alternatives offers cartels an immense pool of young people attracted by easy earnings and the respect earned by the title narcos. It is the internal imbalances in the Mexican apparatuses that are blocking collaboration with Washington in the fight against drug trafficking, especially after the elimination of the federal police by President Obrador, replaced with the Guardia Nacional de facto controlled by the military.

The rules of the game partially change between 2017 and 2019, when China, which remains the main producer of precursors necessary for the production of synthetic drugs, introduces more stringent regulations and the cartels see the opportunity to access as intermediaries. It is precisely India that becomes the destination of Chinese citizens eager to evade the harsher penalties at home, such as Kevin Dai, who rejects any charge, and his Richest Group, specialized in the import-export of Chinese chemicals and food additives ; the main branch, Shanghai Ruizheng, present on the Chinese site Alibaba, exports everywhere and to high-ranking customers, including Samsung, LG and Canon, but also deals with precursors for fentanyl.

The measures adopted by Beijing are inadequate: the State, when it does unannounced checks from notices of 72 hours. Therefore, fentanyl produced in Mexico also arrives in the USA, but with Chinese chemical precursors. Another aspect linking Mexican cartels to China is related to money laundering, as evidenced by Follow the money, the title of the essay, which cannot fail to recall the lesson of Giovanni Falcone, presented to the Congress by Celina B. Realuyo5on the Communist Party of China's fentanyl business model.

We come to politics. Before Blinken's visit to China, the US authorities arrested two Chinese citizens in the Fiji Islands, at the center of mutual Sino-American interests, accused of trafficking related to the supply of fentanyl, a detention turned into a charge on Blinken's return home. Beijing reacts vehemently, pointing to the internal problems of the American system. However, Xi Jinping had all the various forms of fentanyl and synthetic opioids listed as banned drugs in 2019, resulting in 9 people being sentenced in Hebei shortly before the pandemic, the latest installment in a partnership crippled by failure to ease on the duties wanted by Trump, an easing that did not even come with Biden, and with an aggravation determined by the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. The Chinese ban has altered the form of sending substances to the USA, so that from a finished product we have come to bulk and almost all legal substances. The fragmentation of the system that no longer circulates complete products but raw materials has given Beijing a weapon, and made traffic more flexible.

Fentanyl has turned into a lever that makes cooperation subordinate to geopolitics. Taiwan, Indo Pacific, know-how technology, everything contributes to include opioids in a possible negotiation that changes the widespread American crisis into aopportunity for Beijing, who knows perfectly well how much Biden is playing in anticipation of the 2024 elections, especially in the Trumpian Midwest. However, geopolitical mahjong has changed the arrangement of the tiles in Beijing too, after the defenestration of Qin Gang, a possible vulnerability of the Helmsman, who could decide to re-establish more fruitful diplomatic channels, net of the shooting down of suspected spy balloons. In fact, the availability of both is essential for the economic interests of Beijing, called to face a possible one recovery pandemic and growing youth unemployment; China cannot therefore appear as the wolfwarrior which refuses dialogue, especially after the conflicting narratives regarding the origin of the pandemic.

In the USA, the emerging geopolitical data identifies a malaise that affects a society that is no longer so willing to take on obligations and costs perceived as intolerable. In the USA, opioids such as fentanyl cannot be fought from the offer, given that they are produced across the border, and can be purchased on the Dark web; there is no doubt that fentanyl destabilizes American society, in light of the fact that even Mexican President Obrador has failed to gain greater control from Beijing which he denies, against all evidence6illicit trafficking between China and Mexico. The only way out was to charge the events to the dynamics of the black market. This doesn't limit the problems; institutions are also feeling the effects of the opioid epidemic; fentanyl circulates in the Armed Forces; between 2020 and 2021 in Fort Bragg, from where the missions against drug trafficking depart, at least 21 soldiers died from an overdose.

Italy, which receives synthetic drugs mainly from Belgium and the Netherlands, in 2021 occupied fourth place in the world for fentanyl consumption behind the USA, Germany and Spain, according to data provided by the International Narcotics Control Body of the NU. Do not forget the points of contact between drug trafficking and the network supported by the so-called Chinese clandestine banks which highlight the opacity of the system7.

The MO is also not immune to the problem; Jordan8 it is threatened by the sale of Syrian-Lebanese captagon, in a context in which the Islamic State, and others, relied on drug dealing to finance itself. Smuggling of cigarettes, drugs, weapons, diamonds, money laundering, Hezbollah also finances itself thanks to a network that extends as far as South America, with links certified by the DEA with the Mexican cartels Los Zetas and Sinaloa, which have acquired ability to dig tunnels on the border with the USA in the same way as those opened between Lebanon and Israel, and the Colombian FARC. It should be noted, for Hezbollah, the facilities offered by the fact that in the Three Borders Area, between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, thousands of Lebanese immigrants have arrived in recent years; the alliance developed at the time between Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, revolutionaries and oil exporters at the same time, is fundamental.

As a side dish, but not so much, the maxi captagon seizure from Syria, now careful to preserve its return to the Arab League, operated by the GdF in 2020 in the port of Salerno. While on the one hand Tehran supports Hezbollah politically, socially it suffers from the consumption of drugs by at least 3 million habitual users and almost 2 occasional ones, with a loss of at least 5,7 billion euros per year; theocratically, according to Amnesty International, in 2022 Iran conquered the second world position for the number of executions right after Beijing, executions tripled, coincidentally, for drug crimes.

How many narratives: social, ideological, religious; let's stay true to that realistic, less poetic but more adherent to the objective context.

If the Russian invasion has aroused unprecedented interest in geopolitical issues, the all-encompassing assessment of the political-military context has set aside other equally important dynamics. The war on drugs between the USA and China is not fought with weapons but causes internal bleeding that is difficult to stop; Although China apparently moved in the direction of international cooperation in May 2019, trade with Mexico remained active, with huge revenues, given that Fentanyl is a synthetic substance that only needs clandestinely set up laboratories everywhere.

From the Chinese perspective, a trend emerges whereby the government tends to deny any anomaly but aims to arrive at a regulation, the application of which risks being opposed by geopolitical and party interests that prevail over any consideration. If China shows a predisposition to prohibitionist policies, the geopolitical situation still makes a collaboration with Washington difficult to imagine; probably only an internal opioid epidemic would make such a turn possible, although the example of Tien an Men would suggest violently different epilogues; what should be noted is that the cartels have accentuated increasingly marked tendencies towards the Pacific, a phenomenon that can be traced back to the search for new markets.

1 Addiction to analgesics would also cause the number of births of babies with neonatal abstinence to skyrocket.

2 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

3 Fentanyl was used by Russian special units to end the siege of Moscow's Dubrovka theater by Chechen terrorists (2002). Employment that caused a massacre, with 169 victims.

4 The use of force against drug traffickers in Mexico has always been a Trump obsession. According to Mark Esper in 2019 Trump asked the Pentagon to carry out unilateral covert airstrikes on Mexican drug labs.

5 professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University

6 In Lázaro Cárdenas, the largest Mexican seaport and one of the largest in the Pacific, a container from the Chinese city of Qingdao was seized, with packages weighing around 35 kg with traces of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

7 US authorities have stated that i moneybroker Chinese are a threat in the war on drugs. Anne Milgram, head of the DEA said Mexican drug cartels are using Chinese organizations around the world to facilitate drug money laundering. Europol told Reuters that Chinese criminal networks are increasingly engaged in the laundering of criminal proceeds in Europe, including from drug trafficking. Reuters sources explained that the money transfers are part of services offered by organizations linked to China, including support for tax evasion, in what the Italian authorities describe as a clandestine banking system subject to journalistic investigations. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson's Office, China is unaware of anything about the illicit movement of money through Chinese intermediaries into Italy.

8 Hezbollah manages arms and drug trafficking between Syria and Jordan that leave Lebanon and pass through Suweida. For this reason, the forces in Amman have recently intensified their anti-drug operations. The loads depart from the Beqaa valley, pass through the Syrian province and arrive in Jordan