Wuhan was Fentanyl Capital Before Becoming Coronavirus Capital

​Wuhan, China, is the world capital of production of chemicals needed to make fentanyl.(Getty Images) ​

 

For drug traffickers interested in getting in on the fentanyl business, all roads once led to Wuhan.

The sprawling industrial city built along the Yangtze River in east-central China is known for its production of chemicals, including the ingredients needed to cook fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids.

Vendors there shipped huge quantities around the world. The biggest customers were Mexican drug cartels, which have embraced fentanyl in recent years because it is cheaper and easier to produce than heroin.

But the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan late last year before spreading across the planet has disrupted the fentanyl supply chain, causing a ripple effect that has cut into the profits of Mexican traffickers and driven up street drug prices across the United States.

Few industries — illicit or not — have been unscathed by the pandemic that has upended the global economy and killed more than 190,000 people worldwide.

The narcotics trade, which relies on the constant movement of goods and people, has been stymied by lockdowns, travel bans and other efforts to contain the virus, according to government officials, academic researchers and drug traffickers.

Mexican production of fentanyl and methamphetamine appears especially hard hit.

Fentanyl pills disguised as prescription pain killers.(Associated Press)

Both drugs are made with precursor chemicals that are typically sent on planes or cargo ships from China, where despite U.S. pressure to ban them, they continue to be sold legally.

That supply chain was shut down in January when authorities in Wuhan enacted a lockdown that forced residents to stay inside for more than two months.

In February, after a major manufacturer of the chemicals closed, vendors began posting apologies on the online sites where chemicals are typically sold, said Louise Shelley, a professor at George Mason University who tracks global fentanyl production.

“They were saying: ‘We’re not producing or selling or shipping,’” she said.

Logan Pauley, a researcher at C4ADS, a Washington-based think tank focused on transnational security, also noticed a decrease in advertisements for fentanyl precursors. He said vendors switched to selling other products, including face masks and anti-malarial drugs that some doctors and politicians initially hoped would help treat the coronavirus.

The drop in exports has left some Mexican drug producers with less access to needed chemicals.

Simultaneously, cartels have encountered another colossal challenge: new restrictions on entry to the United States — the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs.

Normally, more than a million people cross the U.S.-Mexico border legally each day. But that number has fallen significantly since March, when President Trump closed the border to all nonessential traffic, reducing opportunities for cartels to smuggle drugs north.

Some cartels are hurting financially, said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. He said he has interviewed gang members who complain that cartel bosses have not paid their salaries.

“They’re being told that business is bad, that finances aren’t flowing smoothly,” he said.

Other factors are also hurting organized crime. Experts say quarantines have slowed the movement of cocaine from South America to Mexico and harmed legal industries, such as the avocado trade, from which cartels extort money. Meanwhile, the downturn of global oil prices has been a blow to gangs that resell stolen gasoline.

That loss of income could be exacerbating violence in Mexico, which saw 2,585 homicides in March, more than in any month in nearly two years.

In the United States, reduced drug production and less trafficking across the border appear to have resulted in rising retail prices.

Kameron Korte, a spokeswoman for the San Diego field division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, said fentanyl pills in her region now sell for $7 each, up from $5 a few months ago.

The average cost of methamphetamine has risen from $1,000 per pound to $1,400 per pound, she said.

Similar price hikes have been seen in other parts of the country.

Drug users have grumbled about rising prices on online forums. On a message board on the website Reddit, one person complained that prices of fentanyl pills in Phoenix had nearly doubled. “Border shut = less trafficking,” it said.

Despite that, drug treatment experts say they are seeing a surge in drug use.

Jeffrey Holland, who runs a nonprofit rehabilitation facility in Albuquerque, said anxiety about the pandemic and the economic recession is a potent trigger. It doesn’t help that Narcotics Anonymous meetings and other recovery programs have been moved online, he said.

“This is cultural trauma on a global scale,” he said. “And when people have more anxiety, they turn to alcohol and drugs.”

The country’s opioid crisis began more than a decade ago with prescription painkillers and heroin, but in recent years it has been dominated by fentanyl.

In 2018, more than 31,000 people in the United States died after taking fentanyl or one of its close chemical relatives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No other drug in modern history has killed more people in a year.

Holland said he’s seen no sign of a slowdown in New Mexico during the pandemic.

“Drug dealers are still driving around, and they’re still selling from their houses,” he said.

Jaime López-Aranda, a Mexican security analyst, said that drug traffickers are accustomed to disruptions in the supply chain and that they would bounce back from the pandemic the same way they rebound from cartel infighting or law enforcement crackdowns.

“It’s part of the business cycle,” he said. “This has never been a stable market. The rule is strife and conflict.”

In Mexico, there has been some evidence that cartels have been trying to adapt.

Miguel Angel Vega, a journalist and expert on the Sinaloa cartel, said multiple drug producers have told him of efforts — so far unsuccessful — to manufacture the precursor drugs needed to make fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mexico.

Wuhan ended its 76-day lockdown on April 8, and many of the city’s 11 million residents have returned to work. According to Shelley, some online websites have already resumed selling fentanyl ingredients.

Ben Westhoff, who traveled to Wuhan in 2018 while researching the opioid trade for his book “Fentanyl, Inc.,” said it’s likely that Mexican cartels are already designing more resilient supply chains.

The only reason they relied on Chinese manufacturers for precursor chemicals in the past was because it was easy, he said.

“The reason they buy these ingredients from China is the reason everybody buys things from China: because it’s cheap.”

By Kate Linthicum | Los Angeles Times

Meth Labs Down in Missouri, Meth Smuggling is Up

A recent Associated Press report said although there has been a consistent decline in meth production in Missouri, the smuggling of the drug from Mexico has increased leaving federal and local agencies struggling to contain the movement. (File)



A recent Associated Press report said although there has been a consistent decline in meth production in Missouri, the smuggling of the drug from Mexico has increased leaving federal and local agencies struggling to contain the movement.

Sheriff Chris Heitman with the Maries County Sheriff’s Office said his office personally has seen the decrease in mid-Missouri m​​eth labs but an increase in drug trafficking.

“Thank God meth labs have went down because when I first started in Maries county, we had 19 meth labs and for a small rural county that s a lot of meth labs when we first took over and that was back in 2009,” Heitman said. “We didn’t have any meth labs last year. We need more officers on the street to help intercept a lot of that drug trafficking that’s going on now.”

As sheriff of a rural county, Heitman said there are challenges that come with needing more manpower to tackle new issues.

“Rural counties you know, we don’t have the funding that these larger counties have,” Heitman said. “Every time we have another task to take on, that’s less time we get to focus on our victim crimes, which is our top priority.”

Heitman attributes The decrease in meth labs to productive changed made by law enforcement and elected officials.

“I contribute that a lot to lawmakers changing the Sudafed law and things of that nature that made it hard for cooks to get the products they need to manufacture,” Heitman said.

Though the decrease in locally produced meth is making it more difficult for criminals to get their hands on the deadly drug, the trafficking from South America, and mainly Mexico, has federal and local law enforcement working overtime.

“It is a lot harder for them now,” Heitman said. “There’s no question law enforcement is taking a great stance in reducing the amount of drug trafficking going on.”

According to the Associated Press, Thursday the DEA announced a methamphetamine crackdown called Operation Crystal Shield, which will focus on eight “transportation hubs” where high levels of Mexican meth are being seized. The St. Louis Division, which covers all of Missouri and Kansas as well as southern Illinois, is the northernmost of the eight targeted areas.
 
​By Gladys Bautista​ | KRCG​

Missouri House Passes Drug Monitoring Legislation; Bill Will Move to Senate

Photo by Michael Longmire.​

 

Legislation that would establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) was approved Monday by the Missouri House of Representatives.

Missouri is the only state in the country without a statewide PDMP, an electronic database tracking prescriptions for controlled substances.

House Bill 1693, or the Narcotics Control Act, was passed on a 98-56 vote and would establish a statewide PDMP through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to monitor the prescription and dispensing of all Schedule II, III and IV controlled substances.

Sen. Tony Luektemeyer is carrying the Senate companion bill to the Narcotics Control Act, Senate Bill 677, which is nearly identical to the House bill, Rep. Holly Rehder of Sikeston said by phone Tuesday. One of the main differences between the bills is SB 677 provides for the purging of data after a three-year period.

Opposition to the bill may be due to privacy concerns, Rehder told the Southeast Missourian in late January. The ability to delete patients’ data, therefore, may be a useful tool in negotiations, she said.

“I believe a purge is good, certainly … and I was hoping it would be something that maybe would be helpful for negotiating with some of those who are against it,” Rehder said, noting past PDMP legislation she has carried included language allowing for a purge.

This is the eighth year Rehder has proposed such legislation, but she’s hopeful this will be the year it is finally approved by the Senate, the chamber in which it has historically failed.

In the 2016, 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions, Sen. Dave Schatz, now Senate Pro-Tem, sponsored companion legislation that would have established the Narcotics Control Act.

Schatz, along with majority floor leader Sen. Caleb Rowden, are “incredibly passionate” about this legislation, Rehder said, noting she is hopeful their support will be enough to sway the Senate in favor of the policy this year.

“They both want it to get passed,” Rehder said of the Republican senators. “Last year, both of them worked really hard to negotiate with the conservative caucus and to try to get it across the line, as did Sen. Luetkemeyer.”

Because Luektemeyer’s bill originates in the Senate, Rehder has two chances to see the Narcotics Control Act passed. Should HB 1693 fail on the Senate floor, SB 677 still has a chance to get through. If the Senate bill is approved, it would need to be heard in House committees and on the House floor before it could be enacted into law.

“You want both of your bills to be working through the process at the same time because anything can happen and get hung up,” Rehder said. “ … You never know whose bill ends up making it across the finish line, but you work together so you have one policy.”

​​In recent years, Gov. Mike Parson has stated his desire to sign into law legislation that would establish a statewide PDMP.

HB 1693 and SB 677 are being scheduled for hearings in Senate committees and on the floor, respectively.

 
By Rachael Long | Southeast Missourian

New Enforcement Operation Focuses on Meth Trafficking Hubs

Federal authorities are targeting methamphetamine “transportation hubs” around the country in an effort to block the distribution of the highly addictive drug, officials announced Thursday.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon visited Atlanta to announce the launch of Operation Crystal Shield. Atlanta is one of eight cities the agency has identified as a hub where methamphetamine from Mexico arrives in bulk for distribution around the country.

The other cities are Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Phoenix and St. Louis. By focusing on those hubs, Dhillon said, they hope to attack the entire supply chain and intercept the drug before it is trafficked to neighborhoods and communities throughout the country.

While much of the focus in recent years has been on synthetic opioids like fentanyl, methamphetamine continues to be a leading cause of death and addiction, Dhillon said.

A 2005 federal law that regulated the retail sale of over-the-counter drugs like pseudoephedrine — which can be used to make methamphetamine — largely eliminated the production of the drug in the U.S., Dhillon said. Now, however, the drug is produced on an industrial scale in Mexico and smuggled across the border, he said.

DEA seizures of methamphetamine in the U.S. increased by 127%, from 49,507 pounds to 112,146 pounds, between fiscal years 2017 and 2019, and DEA arrests related to the drug rose nearly 20%, the agency said.

Dhillon and other law enforcement officers spoke at a news conference where piles of methamphetamine from two recent seizures in the Atlanta area.

Firefighters responding to an apartment fire in Cobb County found a meth lab. Inside, authorities found boxes of candles that contained methamphetamine and could be cooked down and processed into crystal meth, said DEA Special Agent in Charge Robert Murphy, who runs the agency’s Atlanta field office. The candles had stickers indicating they’d been inspected by authorities at the border, but the drugs went undetected, he said.

Also on display were transparent evidence bags containing about 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of processed crystal meth that were seized in a Clayton County home along with about 100 gallons (379 liters) of a product that could be cooked into about 5 to 7 pounds (2 to 3 kilograms) of crystal meth per gallon, Murphy said. The drugs on display represented about 2.3 million individual doses, he said.

“This is a staggering amount of methamphetamine, and it illustrates the problem that we have,” he said.

Murphy said the production of the drug in Mexico results in a scary combination: a drug with higher purity and a lower cost.

The surge in resources associated with Operation Crystal Shield is expected to last at least through the end of the year, and authorities said they will be watching to see how the cartels pivot in response.

By Kate Brumback | Asssociated Press

Missouri Lawmakers Push Long Prison Sentences for Fentanyl

Missouri lawmakers have moved to enact strict penalties for people caught with the highly lethal opioid fentanyl.

The House gave the bill initial approval in a voice vote.

If passed, the bill would add fentanyl and two substances sometimes used to commit rape to Missouri’s drug laws.

Fentanyl is already federally listed as a controlled substance. Republican bill sponsor Rep. Nick Schroer said banning its misuse under state law will give local prosecutors more tools to convict people who sell the deadly opioid.

Under the bill, selling or trying to sell more than 10 milligrams of fentanyl would be punishable by five to 15 years in prison. Those convicted of trying to sell 20 milligrams or more of the drug would face 10 to 30 years in prison.

Possessing or trying to buy more than 10 milligrams of fentanyl would mean up to seven years in prison or five to 15 years behind bars for 20 milligrams or more.

Bipartisan critics questioned whether long prison sentences would be effective in deterring drug sales and fighting the opioid epidemic.

St. Louis Democratic Rep. Peter Merideth raised concerns that the law could mean lifelong prison sentences for people struggling with addiction.

 


By Associated Press | Missouri Lawyers Weekly molawyersmedia.com

Proposed Law Would Make Fentanyl Trafficking a Felony

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there were more than 1,600 opioid related deaths in Missouri in 2018. Many of those deaths were attributed to fentanyl.

“The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency is seizing 100 pounds of fentanyl across the country a week,” said Brad Thielemier with the Missouri State Troopers Association. “They’re estimating that’s only 10% of what’s coming across the country.”

“The best way, the only way we can really, effectively combat that is if we have the proper tools,” Tim Lohmar, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney.

Rep Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, believes a bill he’s reintroduced this year could be that tool.

“If it wasn’t for stripping a couple of bills from the house committee substitute last year, this would’ve been on the governor’s desk, and would be law now,” Schroer said during a hearing on the bill Monday afternoon.

Schroer wants the state to add the trafficking of more than 10 milligrams of fentanyl as a Class B Felony charge. That would carry between five to 15 years in prison.

Trafficking more than 20 milligrams would be a Class A felony – meaning 10 to 30 years behind bars.

“I think this is something that gives us the tools along the same lines as trafficking heroin, trafficking cocaine, methamphetamine. This puts it in the same category,” Lohmar added.

Schroer says this will not affect those who are legally prescribed the painkiller, as those doses are much smaller than what is used for trafficking.

Not everyone is convinced increasing jail time for those who intentionally illegally distribute the often deadly drug will help fight the opioid epidemic.

“I do agree there needs to be a stiff penalty, though,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis. “I guess, what I’m trying to understand is what is the appropriate number and why? How does 30 years help us compared to 15 years?”

The Missouri State Troopers Association, Sheriff’s Association, and Association of Prosecuting Attorneys all expressed support of the bill. There was no testimony against it during Monday’s hearing.

 

 

By Andrew Havranek | KY3

Medical Marijuana Raises Questions for Law Enforcement

Since the legalization of medical marijuana in Missouri in November of 2018, law enforcement agencies have expressed concern that the change could lead to an increase in recreational use.

St. Joseph law enforcement agencies often see marijuana use, but St. Joseph Police Capt. Jeff Wilson said the biggest concerns are related to young people and driving.​​

“Our concerns are that it may lead to an increased use in the younger age bracket, and that’s something we’ll monitor,” Wilson said.

Driving while under the influence of marijuana is something Wilson said police officers are trained to detect.

“With the legalization you can probably assume that there will be more impaired drivers because it’s legal for them to use marijuana, but definitely don’t operate a motor vehicle,” Wilson said.

Wilson also urges people with medical cards to keep their substances secure, where kids won’t have access to it.

There’s also a procedure police use to check medical identification cards when they come across them in a traffic stop. Checks are done to make sure the cards are not duplicates or false, which Wilson said is a concern for the department.

Buchanan County Sheriff Bill Puett said his staff is concerned with recreational marijuana use, but they’re more focused on the harsher drugs going through the community.

“Our priorities are concerns about illegal drug use in the county, especially issues of methamphetamine, opioids, heroin and crack cocaine,” Puett said.

Puett said the use of those illegal substances is what brings violence and issues with property crimes. Those in the sheriff’s office still are concerned with medical marijuana issues, but they’re waiting for all of the parameters to be put in place.

“Recreational marijuana use is still illegal and I don’t know if that’ll change, but we’re focused on enforcing the laws on the books and what the Legislature passes,” Puett said.

As the rules involving medical marijuana use move along, Puett said his officers will learn what actions they need to take and what their biggest concerns will be in the future.

Wilson said police recover a variety of illegal substances on the streets, but typically they have specific officers focused on marijuana-related cases to help stop recreational use.

Overall, both law enforcement agencies hope medical marijuana users take the appropriate actions that won’t lead to the substances getting in the wrong hands, causing an increase in recreational use.

 
By Bailey Ketchum | News-Press Now

State Approves 21 Medical Marijuana Transportation Facilities

Missouri has issued the first round of certifications for medical marijuana transportation facilities.

The state Department of Health and Senior Services issued certifications to 21 of 24 applicants across the state.

Transportation applications may be submitted at any time. DHSS will continue to review and approve or deny any applications it receives going forward.

The department notified the approved applicants for transportation facilities by email. It also issued notifications of application denials. Denials are issued for several reasons, including failure to meet minimum qualifications, failure to return applications after rejection notices or application withdrawals.

The list of approved and denied applicants for medical marijuana transportation facilities may be found at health.mo.gov/safety/medical-marijuana

The application fee for a distribution facility is $5,000. Distribution facilities are required to use unmarked vehicles that contain clean, smooth-sided storage containers. The containers (or cargo areas) must be lockable. Vehicles must contain a lockable box for storing payments, with video monitoring. Vehicles must have GPS tracking. They must contain video monitoring of the driver and passenger compartment of the vehicle, and of any area where the products are being stored during transit.

Transportation facilities are required to deliver products to their destination within 24 hours. Staff are to be trained in the statewide track and trace system — developed to track marijuana from seeds (or small plants) to sale.

Last week, the DHSS released a list of approvals and denials for applicants for medical marijuana testing facilities.

News Tribune

State Underestimates Number of Requests for Medical Marijuana

A worker waters marijuana plants at the Colorado Harvest Company in Denver in this Oct. 11, 2017, photo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

 

Missouri has approved thousands more people to use marijuana as medicine within the first six months of the process than researchers in a state-commissioned study predicted the state would see by the end of 2020, and that number could continue to outpace predictions through 2022, advocates say.

Since July 4, 21,879 Missourians have received state cards allowing them to legally possess and use marijuana as medicine after physicians confirmed they have a qualifying medical condition, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services, the agency tasked with regulating medical marijuana.

Researchers with the University of Missouri’s Economic and Policy Analysis Research Center predicted in April that Missouri would have 19,000 medical marijuana patients in 2020 after DHSS asked them to estimate the number of qualified marijuana patients and how much marijuana would be needed to serve them. The researchers estimated Missouri would have about 22,500 patients in 2021, growing to 26,000 in 2022.

Marijuana advocates said in April that the study — which used data from 2015 culled from 19 states — underestimated the number of patients Missouri would see because it used old data from states with widely varying medical marijuana programs.

“We have always predicted that the numbers would be far larger than the MU Economics study predicted,” said Dan Viets, chairman of the Missouri Cannabis Industry Association, in a written statement released last week by the Missouri chapter of the Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “They made the mistake of assuming that all medical marijuana programs are equal.”

Missouri could have at least 122,000 medical marijuana patients by the end of 2022, said Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association spokesman Jack Cardetti. The number is based on a trend in states like Colorado that saw 2% to 3% of the population licensed as marijuana patients after approving medical use, he said.

In the university study, researchers averaged numbers from 19 states that have legalized medical marijuana, looking chiefly at Washington, Arizona, Massachusetts and Colorado, which they said offered the most complete data available. The 46-page study projected the supply of marijuana would outpace demand and that the market would not support the number of businesses the state planned to license.

But because of the differences in state programs and how thoroughly they kept track of data, the study was only able to make projections “with 66% confidence” of how much marijuana patients would need.

At the most, Missouri could have 69,272 qualified medical marijuana patients by 2022, according to the study. But even that number of patients, the study said, wouldn’t generate enough demand for the first three years for 60 commercial marijuana growers.

DHSS says it is bound by the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2018 that legalized medical marijuana to license at least 60 commercial marijuana growers, 192 dispensaries and 86 facilities that manufacture marijuana-infused products. The state expects to begin awarding licenses by January.

The law provided for so many marijuana businesses because it ensured greater access for patients and would generate competition in the market, Cardetti said.

“We think that’s good for patients and we think that’s good for the industry,” he said.

By Nassim Benchaabane | St. Louis Post-Dispatch