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US senator is calling on Secretary of State John Kerry to pressure the Chinese government to toughen its laws to stop the illicit export of the potent opioid fentanyl, which is now killing more Americans than heroin in many areas.

Senator Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, urged Kerry in a letter to seek “international cooperation, especially from China” to halt the flow of fentanyl into the United States. Although China has banned the export of more than 100 synthetic drugs, including various forms of fentanyl, laboratories there have simply come up with new forms of the opioid to sell in the US by tweaking the chemical composition of the drug.

US authorities say they have seen a dramatic influx of fentanyl directly from China.

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“Despite some efforts by the government of China to prohibit the export of synthetic fentanyl, this drug and other illicit substances such as ‘bath salts’ continue to enter the United States, both directly and via the Mexican drug cartels,” Toomey wrote.

The Toomey letter cites a STAT story about a new fentanyl analog being produced in China that was recently identified as the cause of death in the fatal overdose of an Illinois man.

Last week, nine people were arrested for allegedly running a fentanyl distribution ring in Connecticut that federal officials said received large quantities of the drug from China. Wiretaps revealed the Connecticut dealers ordered fentanyl from China using the darknet, a computer network that operates outside the parameters of the traditional internet and usually requires special software and authorization.

A State Department spokeswoman said the agency had not received the letter yet but would respond directly to the senator when it did. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Toomey asked congressional lawyers fluent in Chinese to review that country’s laws regarding fentanyl export. They found law enforcement officials in China lack the ability to prosecute lab operators for shipping analogs of fentanyl. In addition, the process for updating the list of illicit drugs banned for export from China is cumbersome and lengthy. In the US, the Drug Enforcement Agency has emergency powers to quickly add newly created fentanyl analogs to its list of banned controlled substances.

Toomey also called on Kerry to encourage the Chinese to adopt export protocols to block the sale of pill presses. Drug dealers in the US, Canada, and Mexico use the presses to mass produce fentanyl in pill form often made to look like prescription painkillers that fetch premium prices on the street.

In the Sacramento area this spring, 12 people died and 40 others overdosed after taking pills containing fentanyl that were made to look like a commonly used prescription painkiller.

Earlier this month, US Senator Edward Markey sent a letter to Kerry requesting information on State Department efforts to stem the flow of fentanyl from China to the US. The Massachusetts Democrat requested Kerry answer his questions by June 2.

The DEA issued a national alert last year, warning that fentanyl overdoses were “occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States.”

Senator Pat Toomey Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry

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