U.S. imposes sanctions on Chinese national over fentanyl trafficking

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday imposed sanctions on a Chinese national, accusing him of trafficking fentanyl to the United States.

It said in a statement that Taotao Zhang, a chemist and chemical supplier, had shipped illicit synthetic opioids to the United States. The Treasury also blacklisted Hong Kong-based Allyrise Technology Group Co, Limited, of which Zhang is director, accusing it of being a front company for his financial transactions.

Fentanyl is a cheap opioid painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin that has played a major role in an opioid crisis in the United States, where more than 28,000 synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths were recorded in 2017.

U.S. officials say China is the main source of illicit fentanyl. President Donald Trump has accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of failing to meet promises to help stop the flow of the drug into the United States, a charge Beijing rejects.

“The United States remains committed to protecting vulnerable Americans by targeting individuals peddling this deadly drug,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich said.

Tuesday’s action freezes any U.S. assets of Zhang and the Hong Kong-based company and generally bars Americans from dealing with them.

The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said it coordinated the move with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Grant McCool)

China, U.S. to disclose details of rare cooperation against fentanyl drug scourge

China, U.S. to disclose details of rare cooperation against fentanyl drug scourge
BEIJING (Reuters) – Drug law enforcement officers from China and the United States will jointly brief the media on Thursday on a fentanyl smuggling case, in an unusual disclosure of rare Sino-U.S. cooperation in cracking down on fentanyl crimes.

China’s National Narcotics Control Commission and enforcement officers from both countries will give “detailed information” at a press conference in Xingtai city in northern Hebel province about a fentanyl smuggling case that was jointly uncovered by both sides, according to a notice circulated by the State Council Information Office.

Reporters will also be able to view a live broadcast of the trial at the Xingtai court, before the press conference.

Fentanyl is a cheap, relatively easy-to-synthesize opioid painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin that has played a major role in a devastating U.S. opioid addiction crisis.

U.S. officials say China is the main source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that are trafficked into the United States, much of it through international mail. China denies that most of the illicit fentanyl entering the United States originates in China.

U.S. President Donald Trump accused Chinese President Xi Jinping in August of failing to meet his promises to crack down on the deluge of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues flowing into the United States. China labeled that “blatant slander”.

The dispute over fentanyl comes with the United States in the middle of a major trade dispute with China.

China’s National Narcotics Control Commission said in September that Sino-U.S. cooperation on investigating and prosecuting fentanyl-related substances was “extremely limited”, even though counter-narcotics law enforcement departments from both sides had long maintained a good cooperative relationship.

The sudden show of cooperation announced on Tuesday coincides with intense bilateral negotiations over a phase-one trade agreement which Trump said he hoped to sign with Xi.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Exclusive: While battling opioid crisis, U.S. government weighed using fentanyl for executions

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Justice examined using fentanyl in lethal injections as it prepared last year to resume executing condemned prisoners, a then untested use of the powerful, addictive opioid that has helped fuel a national crisis of overdose deaths.

The department revealed it had contemplated using the drug in a court filing last month, which has not been previously reported.

In the end, it decided against adopting the drug for executions. Attorney General William Barr announced in July his department instead would use pentobarbital, a barbiturate, when it resumes federal executions later this year, ending a de facto moratorium on the punishment put in place by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

But the special consideration given to the possibilities of fentanyl, even as federal agents were focused on seizing illegal imports of the synthetic opioid, show how much has changed since the federal government last carried out an execution nearly 20 years ago.

Many pharmaceutical companies have since put tight controls on their distribution channels to stop their drugs being used in executions.

As old supply chains vanished, many states, and the federal government in turn, have been forced to tinker with their lethal recipes. They have experimented with different drugs, in some cases leading to grisly “botched” executions in which the condemned prisoners have visibly suffered prolonged, excruciating deaths, viewed by some as a breach of the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual” punishments.

In 2017, Nebraska and Nevada announced they would use fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine, in new multi-drug execution protocols.

By 2018, the U.S. Justice Department was also examining the “use of fentanyl as part of a lethal injection protocol,” according to a three-page internal memorandum from March 2018 by the director of the department’s Bureau of Prisons.

The Justice Department revealed the memo’s existence in an August court filing after a federal judge ordered it to produce a complete “administrative record” showing how it arrived at the new pentobarbital execution protocol announced in July.

The full contents of the memo are not public. It is not known why the department decided to examine fentanyl, what supply channels were considered or why it ultimately rejected fentanyl as a protocol. The government’s court filing shows the only other named drug examined as the subject of a department memo was pentobarbital, the drug it now says it wants to use in December and January to kill five of the 61 prisoners awaiting execution on federal death row.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a department spokesman, declined to share a copy of the memo or to answer questions about the government’s execution protocol.

Mark Inch, who was the Bureau of Prisons’ director at the time, acknowledged in a brief telephone interview writing the memo. Inch, who abruptly resigned a couple months after writing the memo, declined to answer questions, in part because he said it would be in conflict with his current role running Florida’s Department of Corrections.

Doctors can prescribe fentanyl for treating severe pain. In recent years, illegal fentanyl has become a common additive in bootleg pain pills and other street drugs, contributing to the tens of thousands of opioid overdose deaths in the country each year. Even tiny quantities can slow or stop a person’s breathing.

Earlier this year, an Ohio lawmaker proposed using some of the illegal fentanyl seized from drug traffickers to execute condemned inmates.

‘FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG’

Death penalty researchers say that just because a drug is deadly does not mean it is always appropriate as an execution drug.

“I don’t think it’d be a surprise that the government would be looking at alternative methods of carrying out lethal injection, and fentanyl has been in the news,” Robert Dunham, the director of the Washington-based non-profit group the Death Penalty Information Center, said in an interview.

“But there is just something fundamentally wrong about using a drug implicated in illegal activities as your method of executing prisoners.”

In August 2018, Carey Dean Moore became the first person in the United States to be executed using a protocol that included fentanyl.

Nebraska prison officials injected him with fentanyl and three other drugs. Moore took 23 minutes to die. Witnesses said that before succumbing, Moore breathed heavily and coughed and that his face turned red, then purple.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)