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Charges tie a fentanyl maker in China to the overdose of a Grand Forks 18-year-old

For the first time, U.S. prosecutors have charged drugmakers in China.

The fatal overdose of an 18-year-old in Grand Forks has now led to what the Justice Department calls a "major milestone in the battle to stop fentanyl from entering the U.S." 

Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that for the first time, they've charged people in China with making and selling drugs that killed Americans. 

One of the cases stems from the 2015 overdose of Bailey Henke of Grand Forks. 

Tracing the drugs to China

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in his remarks Tuesday that investigators learned the Grand Forks man who sold fentanyl to Henke had been buying drugs on the internet – using bitcoin to make purchases through an encrypted site that's part of the Dark Web

They traced the fentanyl through Oregon and Canada back to China, where agents say the drugs were made by Jian Zhang, 38. 

Rosenstein says Zhang made fentanyl at four labs in China, advertised it on the internet, and made thousands of shipments to the U.S. from 2013 through last year. He sometimes included pill presses, stamps, and dye so dealers could make the illegal fentanyl look like prescription pills.

Drug and money laundering charges against Zhang were announced Tuesday following his indictment by North Dakota's U.S. Attorney last fall. 

Another Chinese resident, Xiaobing Yan, 40, was indicted by prosecutors in Mississippi and faces similar charges.

Will they stand trial? 

It's unlikely that China will send the accused men to the U.S. to face the charges because there's no extradition agreement between the Chinese and Americans, NPR says.

But Rosenstein told the Washington Post he's optimistic that China will put the men on trial there. And if that happens, the evidence that U.S. agents have gathered would be shared with Chinese prosecutors, he said. 

They're classified with top level drug cartels

The Justice Department put these newly accused Chinese dealers in a category that investigators reserve for the world's biggest drug traffickers. 

They're called Consolidated Priority Organization Targets and they include groups like the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico and the Colombian trafficking group FARC. 

The Justice Department says this is the first time that dealers who specialize in selling fentanyl have been added to the list of "the most prolific international drug trafficking and money laundering organizations."

Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller that can be 50 to 100 times more potent that morphine. 

20,000 Americans (including Prince) fatally overdosed on it in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. 

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