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US Is 'Canary in Coal Mine' on Fentanyl, Blinken Tells New Coalition

FILE - A bag of 4-fluoro isobutyryl fentanyl that was seized in a drug raid is displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Va., Aug. 9, 2016.

WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Friday on dozens of countries to work together to combat synthetic drugs, but China — facing blame in Washington over an addiction epidemic — denounced the effort.

Inaugurating a new U.S.-led "coalition" on the scourge, Blinken told ministers from more than 80 countries that the United States — where nearly 110,000 Americans died last year from drug overdoses, mostly from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids — was "a canary in the coal mine."

"Having saturated the United States market, transnational criminal enterprises are turning elsewhere to expand their profits," Blinken said.

"If we don't act together with fierce urgency, more cities around the world will bear the catastrophic costs" witnessed in the United States, he said.

Americans' addictions began soaring in the 1990s as painkillers were aggressively marketed by profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies, with a disproportionate effect on veterans from U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the drugs' addictiveness became increasingly clear, the United States pressured China, the chief source of fentanyl, to ban exports, which it did in 2019.

But China is still a major producer of precursor chemicals, which are then shipped to Mexico and Central America where cartels produce fentanyl for smuggling into the United States.

With China increasingly seen as hostile in the United States, lawmakers facing addicted constituents have again put blame on Beijing.

Some Republicans have called for military action against cartels in Mexico.

FILE - Plastic bags of fentanyl are displayed on a table at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection area at the International Mail Facility at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Nov. 29, 2017.
FILE - Plastic bags of fentanyl are displayed on a table at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection area at the International Mail Facility at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Nov. 29, 2017.

China refused an invitation to participate in the coalition, saying it believed in international cooperation against drugs but that the United States has sent the wrong message by imposing sanctions on Chinese companies over fentanyl.

China "firmly opposes smearing and attacking other countries or imposing unilateral sanctions on other countries in the name of counternarcotics," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Weng Wenbin said in Beijing.

Global coordination

Todd Robinson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, said the United States would welcome China's participation in future meetings and hoped that other countries would reach out to Beijing.

"Part of the reason we're trying to bring this coalition together is to engage other countries in their efforts against these supply chains, and part of their responsibility is going to be engaging with the PRC," he said, referring to the People's Republic of China.

Blinken implicitly acknowledged that action by China alone would not end the epidemic.

"When one government aggressively restricts a precursor chemical, traffickers simply buy it elsewhere," he said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said that COVID-19 showed the need for global coordination on emerging epidemics, including drugs.

"We once prided ourselves as a drug-free country. Yet today we are witnessing a significant increase in drug consumption, especially among our youth," Park said.

Blinken said the coalition would also look at best practices domestically in treating addiction.

Members of the coalition will meet in person in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Blinken said.

The new grouping will also address other synthetic drugs including captagon, the amphetamine-like stimulant that has seen a surge of use in Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, which was participating in Friday's meeting.

An AFP investigation in November found that Syria has developed a $10 billion industry in captagon, dwarfing all other industries in the war-ravaged country and funding President Bashar al-Assad and many of his enemies.