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The Role of China in the Fentanyl Epidemic

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While we often think of Mexico as a source of illicit drugs, China is a primary source of fentanyl and its analogs. This proliferation has been enabled by illegal online sales, or “dark web” sources, which can be used to purchase large amounts of precursors for easier synthesis. Chinese suppliers also often ship their products directly by mail, increasing the ease of obtaining fentanyl and circumventing more stringent laws regarding smuggling and border crossings. The result is that cheaply produced and easy-to-get fentanyl continues to make its way into the U.S. illicit drug landscape, causing a rise in substance use disorder, overdose, and death.

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China & Illicit Fentanyl Drug Trafficking in the U.S.

China plays a major role in the production and distribution of illicit fentanyl. The highly potent drug is often produced cheaply, making it an ideal target for organized crime networks. Fentanyl can be shipped with relative ease due to its small size, lightweight, and high value in the international market. China’s position as a major exporter of products, drugs, and chemicals makes fentanyl challenging to regulate and control.

While many world governments strive to combat trafficking through policy development, economic sanctions, and interdiction efforts at ports of entry, criminals have developed new strategies to increase efficiency of sophisticated smuggling operations worldwide. But often, lack of resources and corruption has enabled the spread of fentanyl into local communities.

Does China Have a Fentanyl Crisis?

Historically, China has had high rates of opioid dependence. A 2006 report published by PubMed states that these rates declined after the 1949 revolution but began an uptick in the 1980s and have continued to rise since then.

Recent evidence suggests that the illicit fentanyl trade and trafficking could partially contribute to the resurgence. Illicit drugs are often more readily available than prescription opioids, and drug cartels have been utilizing loopholes within countries to distribute their product worldwide. China has become a significant entry point for transnational traffickers, making it easier for opioid abuse to become prevalent in the Chinese population.

In 2019, China began an effort to control fentanyl-related substances by placing them on the supplementary list of controlled drugs and psychotropic substances with non-medical use.

How Are Fentanyl & Illegal Drugs Entering the U.S.?

China fentanyl enters the U.S. either directly or after a stop in Mexico, where clandestine labs press the raw product into pills that look like Xanax, Adderall, or oxycodone. From there, it’s a relatively easy hop over the border into California. Drug traffickers use private cars and commercial vehicles to spirit drugs over the border at legal ports of entry.

U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) has reported that the amount of fentanyl they have intercepted at border crossings has skyrocketed from 2020 to 2022. However, they only inspect 1-6% of cars at crossings, so it is possible that the amount that gets through exceeds that which is seized.

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What Measures Are in Place to Prevent Fentanyl From Entering the U.S.

In recent years, the United States government has taken steps to try and ensure that fentanyl does not enter the nation’s borders. These efforts include tighter regulations on fentanyl precursor chemicals imported from China and increased collaboration between U.S. agencies CBP and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Drug prohibition programs have been implemented to detect fentanyl at ports of entry. Among the efforts, a Fentanyl Detection Challenge was launched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate with the objective of furthering Fentanyl detection technologies by encouraging partnerships with public and private entities to find more effective ways to detect Fentanyl shipments.

Fentanyl distribution has become an international problem that requires strong collaboration between countries and agencies to successfully reduce the presence of this dangerous drug on U.S. streets.

One of the most effective ways to disrupt global fentanyl trafficking is for nations to take a united approach. By investing in intergovernmental law enforcement initiatives such as collaboration and information sharing, countries that are heavily involved in the flow of drugs can be identified and acted upon.

Serious economic sanctions should be placed on countries complicit in fueling the demand for illegal drugs, punishing those facilitating this form of criminal behavior and sending a strong message that the illicit drug trade will not be tolerated. Taking these steps together could create much-needed disruption in the supply chain and make huge strides toward solving this pressing global issue.

Education is also a key player in the fight against fentanyl trafficking and use. People need to better understand the dangers of fentanyl and how it boosts the potency of other substances, including marijuana and heroin.

What is the Largest Seizure of Illegal Fentanyl?

In February 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized a cache of 54 pounds of fentanyl pills and 32 pounds of methamphetamine at the port of entry in Andrade, California, just a few miles from the state’s border with Mexico. It was their largest seizure in history. The estimated the street value of the fentanyl was $746,000 and the methamphetamine was $211,000.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s Rocky Mountain Division seized over 5.8 million potentially deadly doses of fentanyl in 2022.  The division, which covers the states of Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, seized nearly two million fentanyl pills and more than 150 pounds of fentanyl powder in 2022.

Nationwide, the DEA reported it seized a total of over 50.6 million fentanyl pills and more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder in 2022. The DEA Laboratory estimates that these seizures represent more than 379 million potentially deadly doses of fentanyl, which equates to enough fentanyl to kill every American.

Yearly Overdose & Death Tolls From Trafficked Fentanyl

Fentanyl’s potency makes it easy to overdose, and the fact that other substances are sometimes laced with the synthetic opioid makes it even more dangerous. Just two milligrams of fentanyl — the equivalent of 10–15 grains of table salt — can be lethal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 100,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2021, and illicit fentanyl was responsible for more than 60% of them. That same year, there were almost 123,000 fentanyl-related emergency department visits – a significant increase over the past several years.

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Fentanyl trafficking has become an increasingly pressing issue worldwide, with China being a key source of the drug and its analogs. The steady flow of this synthetic opioid into the U.S. contributes to high substance abuse rates, dependence, and overdose. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid dependence, it is essential to seek professional help right away. The experienced and compassionate medical, clinical, and administrative staff at Guardian Recovery are ready to help. We provide comprehensive treatment, including medically-assisted detox, therapy, specialty programs, and reintegration support. We will guide you through every step of your recovery from your first call and throughout your recovery. We provide a complimentary assessment and a free insurance benefits check and help coordinate local travel to our facility. All you have to do is ask for help; we will take care of the rest. Contact us today.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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