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Deadly Fentanyl Trade Linked To Chinese Companies


Not all the Fentanyl for sale in the U.S. comes over the border from Mexico. Some of it is shipped directly from China in powder form and then pressed into pills here. David Armstrong has written about that for the online news site STAT, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DAVID ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And do I have this right that not only is raw Fentanyl being shipped from China but also the machines used to press the powder into pill form?

ARMSTRONG: That's correct, Robert. Both the chemical needed to produce the Fentanyl is being shipped from China as well as these multi-hundred-pound pill presses that can produce upwards of thousands of pills an hour. So you can get both the machinery you need and the drug itself.

SIEGEL: And what's law enforcement doing about this traffic?

ARMSTRONG: Well, they're obviously trying to intercept these things as they come into the country. It's a very difficult thing to do. They're having a little more luck with the pill presses because they are large products. They're shipped illegally. We wrote about a case in Los Angeles where a 500-pound press was shipped labeled as a hole puncher.

But customs was able to intercept that. But it's very difficult because the illicit nature of it. And with so much traffic and so much commerce coming from China, it's really a needle in a haystack exercise in a lot of cases.

SIEGEL: But if it's a pill press machine, it's a pretty big needle just the same.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, but it's in a box. The one that we wrote about came right through LAX with a lot of other packages of similar size on an aircraft. So, you know, when you're talking about the volume of commerce involved here, and if it's not being legally described because it is required to get a DEA permit to ship these things, then it can be a difficult thing to discern.

SIEGEL: Where'd you find this information about the Fentanyl trade coming in from China?

ARMSTRONG: Well, some of it is contained in court filings. For instance, the Southern California lab because they were able to intercept that one pill press, they were able to surveil that group for a period of time. And it turned out, that they had five or six pill presses. They had a very significant operation that included a warehouse and multiple lab locations. So that's one way we found out. The other is just talking to law enforcement. And this is happening everywhere. You know, we talked to the U.S. attorney in Cleveland who said that Fentanyl is coming directly from China to that area and sometimes being sold as Oxycodone. People don't even know they're taking Fentanyl.

SIEGEL: Do you think this is an offshoot of a legitimate pharmaceutical industry in China or Chinese crime?

ARMSTRONG: It's really difficult to say. These are legitimate companies. They're legally producing, as far as we can see, the products that they produce. The problem is they are shipping the product here where it's being used illicitly. And in many cases, the pharmaceutical companies that are doing this say they are only providing it for research means. But it doesn't appear as if there's any serious effort to uncover the source of the buyer and if they are truly researchers or using it for such a purpose.

SIEGEL: David Armstrong, a senior enterprise reporter for STAT, a new online news site dedicated to health and science. Thank you.

ARMSTRONG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.