China Closes Loophole in Fentanyl Rules

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China is clamping down on more substances related to the deadly opioid fentanyl, moving ahead to meet a promise made to President Trump amid U.S. and Chinese negotiations to resolve the countries’ trade fight.

Chinese regulators announced Monday that a wider range of fentanyl derivatives would be declared controlled substances on May 1 and laid out steps for further enforcement, including stepped-up investigations and better tracking of shipments.

The new regulations adopt a broad definition of “fentanyl-related substances,” banning whole classes of chemicals in line with U.S. practice. The change should make much of China’s fentanyl production illegal, closing a loophole in Chinese regulations that U.S. officials say has fueled an epidemic among Americans.

China previously classified only 25 fentanyl variants and two ingredients used to make the drug, which U.S. officials argued was far from enough. Manufacturers could easily sidestep the blacklist by tweaking the chemicals, with myriad possible variations.

“There are many variants and they change quickly, so banning it is difficult,” Liu Yuejin, a police official and deputy head of the China National Narcotics Control Commission, said at a news conference.

China’s harder line on fentanyl marks progress on a priority issue for the Trump administration and is likely to brighten the atmosphere for trade talks that continue this week with a high-level round of negotiations in Washington.

Though Mr. Liu denied the fentanyl regulations are linked to those negotiations, the U.S. has tied the two.

During the December summit in which Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinpingagreed to a cease-fire in imposing punitive tariffs on each countries’ goods, U.S. officials say, Mr. Xi also promised to crack down on fentanyl. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the lead negotiator with China, told a Senate panel last month that he would prefer to write China’s commitment on fentanyl into a final trade agreement.

The fentanyl agreement follows more than two years of advocacy by the U.S. Department of Justice. The definition adopted by China this week had been proposed by U.S. Justice Department lawyer Harry Matz, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing declined to immediately comment on Monday. In December, Mr. Trump expressed hopes about Chinese fentanyl enforcement, tweeting that if China applies the death penalty to fentanyl distributors, “The results will be incredible!”

Mr. Liu said China was preparing to intensify investigations into illicit manufacturing of fentanyl-related drugs, set up rapid-checking facilities, scrub illicit advertisements from the internet and press delivery companies to track and screen packages with senders’ real names.

Implementation is likely to prove a challenge in China, with its vast chemical and drugmaking industries. Law enforcement officers across the country will need training to identify the hundreds of compounds set to become illegal. Judges will also have to deal with how strictly to penalize drug manufacturers whose production had previously been legal.

The new rules are unlikely to affect the case of two Shanghai men indicted last year by the U.S. Department of Justice who were producing fentanyl analogues illegal in the U.S. but legal in China at the time. Asked about their case on Monday, Mr. Liu said the U.S. Justice Department hadn’t shown that the men violated Chinese law.