U

S customs officials are refusing to release records related to two Chinese companies linked to an explosion of fentanyl overdoses unless the companies give their permission — a stance called astonishing by an expert on public records.

STAT requested US government records related to the companies through a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this month. The information sought included any records documenting violations of US law by the companies; sanctions or restrictions placed on the companies; reports detailing products exported to the United States by the companies; and any investigative reports.

In response, the US Customs and Border Protection agency instructed STAT to resubmit its request with statements from the companies “authorizing that their information may be accessed, analyzed, and released to a third party.”

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STAT appealed that decision on April 12. A day later, the official handling appeals for the agency denied STAT’s request, saying “you did not provide authorization from those companies for CBP to provide information about them to you.” The agency said the authorization had to come in the form of a notarized release or a statement signed under penalty of perjury.

The directive to obtain permission from the companies to release records related to them “is really astonishing” and not how the federal public records law works, said Adam Marshall, a lawyer with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

“It is absolutely crazy,” he said of the agency’s response. “There is no requirement or burden on the FOIA requester to get permission from a private company to have information about them that the government holds to be released.”

A spokeswoman for the federal agency did not respond to telephone and email messages.

One of the companies STAT requested information on was Capsulcn International. The company, whose specific location in China is unknown, was cited in an affidavit by a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent investigating an alleged fentanyl ring in southern California. The agent alleged that the company had “historically shipped pill presses for importation into the United States and declared the merchandise under a false label.”

In one particular case, a 500-pound pill press allegedly shipped to Los Angeles-area drug dealers was labeled a “Hole Puncher,” according to the affidavit. The DEA was not notified of the pill press shipment, as required by US law.

Pill presses shipped from China have allowed drug dealers in the United States and Canada to manufacture massive amounts of fentanyl pills, including many that are labeled as other oft-abused opioids that fetch a higher street price, according to law enforcement officials. These include OxyContin and Xanax. Fentanyl is also being cut into heroin, producing deadly results across the country.

The drug, which can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, is so powerful that unsuspecting users can quickly overdose because they do not realize what they are using. In raw form, fentanyl can cause an overdose by simple contact with human tissue.

In several areas of the United States and Canada, fentanyl is now causing more deadly overdoses than heroin.

STAT also requested information on Dharma Chemicals, also known as Dharmachem, which was accused in a World Health Organization report last year of selling a fentanyl analog over the Internet. Even though the sale of the fentanyl analog was banned last fall by China, a reporter for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper was recently told by the company that “stock is available” and was promised quick delivery. In an email to STAT, a Dharma representative said the company no longer sells acetyl fentanyl, the analog banned by China, and never shipped that product to Canada. The company representative said Dharma recently added a different analog to its catalog, called  furanylfentanyl, that it is selling for “research purposes.”

STAT also asked the company to grant permission for US customs to release records related to Dharma. The company asked for more information on what STAT was requesting.

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