Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference regarding a major drug bust, at the office of the New York Attorney General, Sept. 23, 2016, in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials at a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday on the deadly illicit drug fentanyl said they need more money for better screening technology at ports of entry at the Southern border.
They also said the U.S. needs to keep pressure on China due to its role in the sale of chemicals used to make fentanyl, a highly addictive man-made opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin.
The leader of the Drug Enforcement Administration noted that two cartels are responsible for not only most of the fentanyl drugs in the U.S., but globally.
And an official at the State Department detailed that China is the primary source for providing the chemicals needed to make fentanyl, and that China has had a “limited willingness to engage” on the issue.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that fentanyl is not only found in opioids, it’s found in the “entire drug supply,” from cocaine to methamphetamine to fake fentanyl-laced Adderall prescription pills.
Gupta said the president’s drug control budget to be sent to Congress will request funds to screen vehicles at the Southern border, though he did not cite a figure.
The chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and the top Republican member, Sen. James Risch of Idaho, debated if sanctions or visa restrictions should be placed on China to pressure that country to stop selling chemicals to cartels in Mexico that make fentanyl-laced drugs and smuggle them into the U.S.
Menendez said that if China fails to cooperate in good faith with the U.S. in actions such as sharing information on fentanyl trafficking, then “the United States will have no choice but to take unilateral steps by expanding sanctions … in order to protect the American people.”
The relationship between China and the U.S. is complex, said Todd Robinson, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the State Department.
Adding to the strain, in a Feb. 4 incident, China claimed a high-altitude balloon taken down by the military 6 miles off the South Carolina coast, flying at 60,000 feet, was collecting weather data. The Pentagon has said it was a surveillance balloon.
Robinson said that Mexico’s government has been more willing than China to work with the U.S. government on fentanyl trafficking and that cooperation with Mexico is essential, but Menendez said he was skeptical.
Robinson added that a small portion of the chemicals used to make fentanyl also comes from India, and added that India’s government has agreed to work with the U.S. and created a Counter Narcotics Working Group, which works to combat international drug trafficking.
Calling out China
Risch and Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee expressed their frustration that the Biden administration has not directly called out China, and its role in the fentanyl crisis.
Risch pointed out that in the readout of President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping meeting in November, there was no mention of fentanyl.
However, most publicly released readouts between the president and other world leaders do not contain much detail.
Risch asked Robinson if Biden had brought up the issue of chemicals sold from China and used to make fentanyl in Mexico.
“We have had very limited engagement with China on this issue,” Robinson said, adding that he was not aware if Biden had brought up the issue with China’s president.
“The relationship with China is complicated. We have a number of issues to discus with them,” Robinson said.
Ports of entry
Anne Milgram, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration at the Department of Justice, said that there are two main drug cartels that are responsible for all the fentanyl — the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels.
She said all the fentanyl that the DEA has seized has come through two U.S. Customs and Border Protection ports of entry in California and two ports of entry in Arizona.
Last year, CBP seized more than 14,000 pounds of fentanyl.
Gupta said most of the drugs seized at ports of entry are found by using technology to scan personal vehicles and tractor trailers, but officials do not have enough scanners.
“We still do not scan enough of that traffic,” he said. “I want to see every port of entry have that technology.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, also discussed tech companies’ role in the selling of fentanyl through social media platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and asked what responsibility those private companies share for the crisis.
Milgram said the fentanyl is sold through social media, calling it “the superhighway of drugs,” and that her agency has told those social media companies that people are obtaining fentanyl through those platforms.
“We have asked them to do more,” she said. “We have not seen them doing more.”
She said that social media has allowed drug dealers to have a larger customer base, and to those dealers, “if a user dies, it is the cost of doing business.” Because of social media, they have access to millions of other users, she said.
“Today the cartels understand that if someone dies from taking their deadly fentanyl, that there are 100 million other users on Snapchat that they can sell their drugs to, there are more than 150 million American users on Facebook and on Instagram that they can sell their drugs to,” she said.
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