Sanctions on China aren’t the answer to Australia’s opioid problem
12 Sep 2019| and

The US is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that is showing no signs of abating. In 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, around 40% of which were linked to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Most of the synthetic opioids consumed in the US are manufactured in labs in mainland China. So last month, after years of repeated warnings, US President Donald Trump banned all imports of the drug from China.

As Australia’s own fentanyl problem grows, the Morrison government will need to consider whether our strategies for reducing the supply of opioids will coalesce around sanctions or cooperation with Chinese authorities.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin. In the US in 2016–17, the rate of overdose deaths from heroin had plateaued, while deaths from synthetic drugs like fentanyl increased by 45%.

In October 2017, Trump declared his nation’s opioid crisis a public health emergency and committed to use the federal government’s legal powers to ‘pursue companies that helped fuel the epidemic’.

The US immediately started a legislative process to introduce sanctions against Chinese entities involved in the production of fentanyl or fentanyl analogues. However, the bill is not law yet.

If passed, the bill will require the secretaries of state and treasury to submit an annual report identifying each person in China, including any Chinese government officials, involved in the production and distribution of fentanyl to the US.

At the same time, Trump, in his typical brusque fashion, promised to raise the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying, ‘he will do something about it’.

In December last year, in response to Trump’s demands, Xi’s government committed to cracking down on the production and shipment of fentanyl.

On 23 August, with trade tensions between China and the US increasing, Trump announced that he was ‘ordering’ the US Postal Service and express shipping companies to search for and refuse all deliveries of fentanyl.

Closer to home, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission reported earlier this year that data from its national wastewater monitoring program shows a noticeable increase in fentanyl use over the past two years in several locations across Australia.

The Pennington Institute’s Australian annual overdose report 2019 notes that that in 2017 there were 904 unintentional opioid-induced deaths, equating to 56% of all unintentional overdose deaths for that year. Between 2005 and 2017, the number of deaths from fentanyl overdoses increased by more than 1,000% (from 12 to 198).

The possibility of a large-scale Australian opioid crisis seems very real, but would a sanctions regime for Chinese fentanyl manufacturers be possible or appropriate here?

Australia currently operates an autonomous sanctions regime—separate from its obligations to implement UN Security Council sanctions—through legislative instruments associated with the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011.

Although parliament created the regime, it doesn’t oversee its implementation. That responsibility rests solely with the foreign minister, who can create legislative instruments to add countries and associated entities into the framework. The minister would therefore have oversight of any trade sanctions imposed against China.

Trade sanctions under the Autonomous Sanctions Act are currently in force against Iran, Myanmar, Russia, Syria and Zimbabwe, as well as Crimea and the peninsula’s main city of Sevastopol.

The two primary reasons trade sanctions are imposed are for breaches of the territorial integrity or sovereignty of another country (as in the case of the Crimea, Russia and Sevastopol sanctions) or for human rights abuses and the use of violence against civilians (as with Syria).

So imposing trade sanctions under this regime against foreign drug and precursor manufacturers would represent a significant departure from how it has previously been used. Such a move could be viewed as equating the poor regulation and enforcement of China’s licit and illicit pharmaceutical industry with the Russian invasion of Crimea or the current situation in Syria—and that’s not something Australia is likely to do anytime soon.

Fundamentally, the purpose of sanctions is punitive. They have significant normative weight in international affairs. While invoking sanctions in this case would signal how serious Australia is about the need to combat the drug crisis, it would be a significant escalation in an already tense relationship with the Chinese government. And it would have little impact on fentanyl supply chains.

In our opinion, sanctions against Chinese pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturers would be unwieldy and difficult to manage.

The size and opaqueness of the Chinese illicit drug industry, and its supply chains, would make it difficult to apply sanctions effectively. Identifying and monitoring entities and individuals involved in the production of synthetic illicit drugs in China, without Chinese government assistance, would be resource-intensive and challenging.

It also seems unlikely that Australia’s sanctions regime would be agile enough to respond to the constant changes in China’s industrial landscape in which the labs and people involved in producing these substances are always evolving.

As the Chinese government continues to crack down on the country’s illicit drug supply, the production of fentanyl and its analogues is likely to move to neighbouring countries in the Mekong region.

Instead of sanctions, Australia would be much better served by bolstering resources to inspect incoming mail—particularly mail from China and smaller packages ordered from dark online markets. Australia could also focus on building on the success of existing bilateral law enforcement and border management arrangements.