Eurasia Review: China Unlikely To Curb Fentanyl Exports In Short-Term

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Strict policies traditionally embraced by Asian nations to discourage
illicit drug use are beginning to change, with a few nations adopting
alternative approaches while other nations are taking an even harder
line against drugs, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

Thailand is on the forefront of Southeast Asian nations that are
reconsidering longstanding policies, moving to adopt greater harm
reduction, approving the use of medical cannabis and easing restrictions
on the traditional use of the substance kratom.

Meanwhile, some other nations — most visibly represented by the
Philippines — are adopting even harsher policies on illicit drugs,
including violent repression of drug distribution and use.

“Asian nations have long espoused the goal of a drug-free society,
imposing harsh criminal penalties and even the death penalty on those
involved with illicit drugs,” said Bryce Pardo, lead author of the
report and a policy analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
“So it is surprising to see some Asian nations begin to go in a
different direction and consider more-progressive policies.”

The RAND report also dissects China’s role as a focal point in the
global supply of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is
responsible for a growing number of fatal drug overdoses in the U.S.

The report outlines the rapid rise of the drug industry in China,
where there are now more than 5,000 pharmaceutical manufacturers and
hundreds of thousands of chemical companies. While the industry is a
leading source of many legitimate chemicals and pharmaceutical
ingredients, its growth has made it easier for some companies to avoid

China’s central government has promised to crack down on fentanyl
manufacturers, but enforcement of such policies is typically done at the
provincial level, where there is little infrastructure in place to
regulate the drug and chemical industries.

“China’s leaders recognize that they have a problem and appear
committed to seeking solutions,” Pardo said. “But it is unlikely that
they can contain the illicit production and distribution of fentanyl in
the short term because enforcement mechanisms are lacking. Producers are
quick to adapt, impeding Chinese law enforcement’s ability to stem the
flow to global markets.”

Thailand’s shift from harsh drug policies toward evidence-based
treatment and reduced punishment appears to be motivated by the heavy
burden previous policies have had on its prison system and an alarming
increase in disease transmission related to needle-sharing.

In 2016, about 70 percent of Thailand’s 320,000 prisoners were
incarcerated for drug offences, including many for consumption-related
violations. The nation has begun to move toward voluntary outpatient
treatment and has experimented with needle-exchange programs to address
disease transmission.

The report notes that the illicit production and use of opioids and
amphetamine-type substances are the greatest concern across Asia. There
also are reports of rising trafficking and use of new psychoactive
substances and ketamine.

But one challenge facing Asian nations is a shortage of reliable
information about drug use, which is key to assessing the size of the
problem and judging the influence of policies.

“As in many countries, there is tremendous imprecision in the data
available on the prevalence of drug use in Asia and the amount of money
spent on these substances,” said Beau Kilmer, a co-author of the report
and co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. “Policy shifts
are occurring and these data gaps will make it difficult to evaluate the
consequences of these changes in the near and longer term.”

Eurasia Review

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