Officials believe China’s recent decision on fentanyl will positively impact the Fort Smith region and Arkansas.
The White House on Dec. 1 announced the Chinese government listed fentanyl as a controlled substance. In 2017, fentanyl was involved in thousands of drug overdose deaths in the United States. Though local officials said the decision will not completely prevent illicit manufacturers and dealers from pushing the drug into Arkansas, they said it will pressure them in ways that will benefit the state.
Fentanyl, which is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, is one of several synthetic opioids other than methadone that in 2017 accounted for nearly 30,000 drug overdose deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. China is one of the top fentanyl producers in the world, said Paul Smith, director of the 12th and 21st District Drug Task Force.
“Countries are seeing the devastation that is occurring in other countries,” Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane said of China’s decision.
Drugs, substances and some chemicals in the United States are federally scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration based on their acceptable medical uses and abuse or dependency potentials. Though it is used medically to treat instances of extreme pain, the DEA schedules fentanyl as a Schedule II drug because of its high potential for abuse with use that could potentially lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Smith said officials have not seized any fentanyl in Sebastian and Crawford counties but have received reports of it in the area. Lane in August said DEA officials told him about half the drugs they seize in heroin buys in central Arkansas have either been fentanyl or heroin laced with fentanyl.
“We do realize that it is in our community. We just haven’t seized any of it yet,” Smith said.
Lane said a large amount of illicit fentanyl in the U.S. comes from Mexican drug cartels who are supplied through Chinese manufacturers. Smith said fentanyl in Sebastian and Crawford counties would most likely come from “source cities” like Dallas and Oklahoma City after the cartels traffic it into the U.S.
Smith anticipates China’s scheduling will have a similar effect on the front end of the trafficking as U.S. border security has on it further down the line.
“The same thing will happen with regulating that chemical and making it harder to get out,” Smith said.
“If China does clamp down on it, then I’m sure that’s going to curb the flow,” Lane said. “If people still manufacture it and try not to get caught, you just have to work that much harder to stop it.”
Smith also anticipates the drug scheduling will impact the domestic price of fentanyl.
“The distributor is going to say, ‘I only have a limited amount; I’m going to jack the price up. People who want it are still going to purchase it,’” he said.
Though he is optimistic about China’s decision, Smith said he believes its effects in the U.S. will not be immediate. Smith believes it will be six months to a year before people in the U.S. will see a difference.
In the meantime, Smith and other law enforcement officials are paying close attention to fentanyl reports.
“We’ve specifically reached out to the bulk of our law enforcement counterparts in our area and told them and emphasized that heroin and fentanyl is an area that if you get any information, we will investigate, and that’s what we continue to do,” he said.