The United States and China on Nov. 16 announced an agreement to curb production of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans. The agreement comes as fentanyl-related deaths in Wisconsin have surged in recent years.
Legally prescribed fentanyl can be used to manage pain, but illegally manufactured fentanyl in both pill and powdered form can be highly addictive, dangerous, and lead to a fatal overdose. Fentanyl powder is often combined with other drugs to add a heroin-like effect to those products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this effect makes drugs more addictive, powerful, and cheaper while increasing the risk of a deadly overdose.
President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in San Francisco.
“With this new understanding, we’re taking action to significantly reduce the flow of precursor chemicals and pill presses from China to the Western Hemisphere. It’s going to save lives, and I appreciate President Xi’s commitment on this issue,” Biden told reporters.
According to a January 2020 report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, China is the primary source of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that have been trafficked into the U.S. The agency says that in the past year it has seized over 69.7 million fentanyl pills and over 11,100 lbs. of fentanyl powder.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that 109,680 people in the U.S. died of drug-related causes in 2022, a record high. Many of those deaths were attributed to fentanyl.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a public health advisory in August 2022 noting that fentanyl was increasingly involved in overdose deaths in the state. In 91% of opioid overdose deaths and 73% of all drug overdose deaths in Wisconsin, synthetic opioids — primarily fentanyl — were identified.
The advisory also stated that fentanyl overdose deaths in Wisconsin increased from 651 in 2019 to 1,280 in 2021, a 97% rise.
In response to the problem in Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in 2022 signed legislation decriminalizing fentanyl test strips, which had previously been categorized as drug paraphernalia. The strips allow people using opioids to test for the presence of fentanyl and to avoid overdoses.
The Biden administration has taken other steps at the federal level to curb opioid abuse.
In August, the administration announced that $450 million would be allocated to address the overdose crisis. The funding will go toward expanding overdose prevention strategies, with more than half of the funds earmarked for state and local health departments dealing with the problem. In 2022, the administration awarded $1.5 billion to all states and territories to be used to combat overdoses and fund recovery programs.
The Treasury Department in October announced that it had sanctioned 28 individuals and entities allegedly involved in drug trafficking, including a China-based network that produces fentanyl.
The administration has said that it intends to tackle the fentanyl problem through a “whole-of-government approach” to the issue.