SPECIAL REPORT: First line of defense against fentanyl trafficking

Fentanyl is fatal in a dose of as little as two milligrams, equivalent to just a few grains of sand.

Any country, including the US, that is facing the illicit fentanyl epidemic, should first of all, strengthen its border security.  By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

Fentanyl, a class of powerful synthetic opioid, and fentanyl analogues are increasingly being trafficked across the world. Besides the US, United Nations data show that more than 50 other countries currently are being negatively impacted by the trafficking of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

There is an alarming increase in people abusing fentanyl, as it is 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin, and 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. In the US alone, 32,000 people died from fentanyl overdose in 2018. Fentanyl is fatal in a dose of as little as two milligrams, equivalent to just a few grains of sand.  It is available in both powder and pill forms.

To drug syndicates, there is significantly higher profit margins for synthetic drugs like fentanyl because of their potency and ease of manufacturing. According to the US government, China is the biggest source country producing fentanyl and its analogues, and chemical precursors.

However, it must be noted that fentanyl is not prohibited in China.  Only its unauthorized manufacture and handling is. The country legitimately produces fentanyl for medical purposes. This drug is used legally as a painkiller, mainly for cancer and hospice patients.

Manufacturers in India, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh have the potential to become increasingly involved in supplying illicit synthetic opioids and their precursors.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says that fentanyl costs about US$3,500 per kilogram online from China. After pressing one kilogram of fentanyl into pills, they can generate between US$10 and US$20 million in retail sales.

The supply routes

Fentanyl is transported into the US in parcel packages, both by sea and air freight, directly from China or from China through Canada and Mexico. Fentanyl and all related substances are easily available for sale online.

To hide their trails, the Chinese suppliers use international mail consolidators to mask the origin of the shipments. One of the methods used is to ride on the wave of normal e-commerce shipments to avoid detection by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The rise of e-commerce has dramatically increased the number of parcels shipped from China.

The volume of international mail processed by the US Postal Service more than tripled between 2013 and 2017, from 149.5 million parcels to 498.3 million.

synthetic opioids distributed from china to usa
Credit: The US Government

The Chinese clampdown

The Chinese central government is cracking down hard on illegal fentanyl manufacturers. In May 2019, China has listed all fentanyl-related substances as controlled narcotics for nonmedical use.

This ban will play an important role in preventing the illicit manufacture and trafficking of fentanyl-related products and stop large-scale abuse of the drug.

However, with the rapid rise of the drug industry in China, there are now 5,000 pharmaceutical manufacturers and 400,000 chemical companies. They produce active pharmaceutical ingredients which can include synthetic substances and precursor chemicals that are used in the production of controlled substances.

The abundance of manufacturers makes it easier for some to avoid regulations. This is also an ideal environment for unscrupulous companies to conceal the production and export of illegal synthetic drugs and chemical precursors.

“China’s leaders recognize that they have a problem and appear committed to seeking solutions,” said Bryce Pardo, policy analyst at RAND, an American think tank.

“But it is unlikely that they can contain the illicit production and distribution of fentanyl in the short term because enforcement mechanisms are lacking.

“Producers are quick to adapt, impeding Chinese law enforcement’s ability to stem the flow to global markets.”

Enforcement of the central government’s ban on fentanyl-related substances is typically done at the provincial level, where there is little infrastructure in place for regulatory oversight.

Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that widespread industry corruption in China is also contributing to the illicit production and export of synthetic drugs and precursors.

Moreover, compounding the problem is the fact that fentanyl chemists, working for the drug syndicates, are getting creative in circumventing the ban by changing the chemical structures of lethal opioids.

US border enforcement initiatives

US officials have made significant gains in locating illegal opioids at borders and international mail facilities. Leveraging on technology, they are using hand-held sensors that can scan inside packages and detect potent, but tiny, shipments of opioids. The US CBP has also trained a number of dogs to detect fentanyl and other opioids.

On a daily basis, officers at the National Targeting Center comb through passenger lists for all flights and cargo manifests of ships arriving at the US. This allows them to identify people and cargo that should be stopped or examined at the borders.

Importantly, CBP is increasing coordination with China’s customs authority to share more shipping data. According to Kevin McAleenan, CBP’s commissioner, this resulted in a 65 percent increase in the number of intercepted packages of fentanyl in 2018.

With all these enforcement efforts at the borders, it is no surprise that CBP’s fentanyl seizures are going up. During 2016, the first year CBP started tracking fentanyl seizures, 440 pounds were seized. It grew to 951 pounds in 2017, and 984 pounds through the end of April 2018.

A successful drug bust

In 2018, CBP officers seized 110 pounds of illegal fentanyl worth US$1.7 million at the Port of Philadelphia. During a routine examination, CBP officers together with a narcotics detector dog, had discovered the fentanyl in a shipment of iron oxide that arrived from China.

They searched through the iron oxide and discovered 50 packages that contained sealed bags of a white, powdery substances. The officers then tested the substances on the spot using a handheld elemental isotype analysis tool that can identify over 14,000 chemical substances with the use of a laser or infrared beam.

Upon further testing at CBP’s Laboratory and Scientific Services, it was found that they were 4-Fluoroisobutyryl Fentanyl, a fentanyl analog. High purity fentanyl such as this can sell for over US$34,000 per kilogram on the street.


Fentanyl will continue to be a serious threat globally if drug syndicates still see huge profitability while demand remains prevalent and the current illicit production output continues.

Fentanyl’s lethality is still going to pose challenges and risks to the authorities as well as contribute to increasing numbers of overdose deaths when the addiction problem is not addressed.

Bringing an end to the fentanyl epidemic will be a complex and lengthy process, involving both measures on the supply as well as demand sides. But strengthening border security and blocking illicit drugs from entering is a very good start.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

subscribe maritime fairtrade

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more