For a few thousand dollars, Chinese companies offer to export a powerful chemical that has been killing unsuspecting drug users and is so lethal that it presents a potential terrorism threat, an investigation has found. The AP identified 12 Chinese businesses that said they would export the chemical a synthetic opioid known as carfentanil to the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium and Australia for as little as USD 2,750 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), no questions asked. Carfentanil burst into view this summer, the latest scourge in an epidemic of opioid abuse that has killed tens of thousands of people in the United States alone.
Dealers have been cutting carfentanil and its weaker cousin, fentanyl, into heroin and other illicit drugs to boost profit margins. Despite the dangers, carfentanil is not a controlled substance in China, where it is manufactured legally and sold openly online. The US government is pressing China to blacklist carfentanil, but Beijing has yet to act, leaving a substance whose lethal qualities have been compared with nerve gas to flow into foreign markets unabated.
“We can supply carfentanil . for sure,” a saleswoman from Jilin Tely Import and Export Co. wrote in broken English in a September email. “And it’s one of our hot sales product.” China’s Ministry of Public Security declined multiple requests for comment from the AP. Before being discovered by drug dealers, carfentanil and substances like it were viewed as chemical weapons. One of the most powerful opioids in circulation, carfentanil is so deadly that an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill a person.
Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin; carfentanil is chemically similar, but 100 times stronger than fentanyl itself. “It’s a weapon,” said Andrew Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009 to 2014. “Companies shouldn’t be just sending it to anybody.”
The AP did not actually order any drugs so could not conduct tests to determine whether the products on offer were genuine. But a kilogram of carfentanil shipped from China was recently seized in Canada. Carfentanil was first developed in the 1970s, and its only routine use is as an anesthetic for elephants and other large animals. Governments quickly targeted it as a potential chemical weapon.