Senators pressure Biden administration to crack down on fentanyl sales through cryptocurrency

A bipartisan pair of US senators is pressuring the Biden administration to do more to crack down on how drug cartels use cryptocurrency to traffic fentanyl, a drug that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Sens.Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, have asked for information on “specific actions” the administration has taken regarding crypto’s role in the fentanyl trade and what metrics the administration uses to measure success in a new letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration and White House obtained by CNN.

The letter reflects growing anxiety in Congress about the fentanyl crisis and the ease with which Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartels can cheaply buy ingredients online to make the synthetic opioid.

A CNN investigation published in August examined the increasing use of cryptocurrency in the fentanyl trade and efforts by the DEA and other agencies to try to catch up to the threat in their investigations. Those efforts included federal agents poring over notes that drug traffickers left in stash houses and tracing crypto payments to accounts allegedly used by the cartels. Cryptocurrency transactions for fentanyl ingredients surged 450% in the year through April 2023, according to data from private crypto-tracking analysis firm Elliptic.

The Biden administration has in the last year announced multiple initiatives involving law enforcement, intelligence gathering and anti-money laundering capabilities across the federal bureaucracy to track and intercept fentanyl proceeds.

But now, Warren and Cassidy want to know what progress those initiatives are making, any roadblocks the administration is facing and what Congress can do to help. The senators expressed their “ongoing concerns” about how cryptocurrency helps fuel the deadly fentanyl trade.

“What statutory limits do you currently face? Do you have any specific recommendations for Congress to address this problem?” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram and Rahul Gupta, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

CNN has requested comment from the White House and the DEA on the letter.

Fentanyl continues to be an extremely delicate diplomatic issue in US relations with Mexico and China. Most of the fentanyl that enters the US comes from ingredients made in China that are then pressed into pills – or packed in powder – and smuggled in from Mexico by drug cartels, according to the DEA.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen led a delegation to Beijing last month where she touted a new “working group” through which US and Chinese officials can discuss money laundering concerns, including those related to fentanyl.

William Kimbell, the DEA’s chief of operations, told a Senate hearing last month that his agency needed more cooperation from their Chinese counterparts.

“We would like to see more cooperation from the Chinese where they’re actually sharing intelligence with us when they identify people in their own country that are breaking their money laundering laws … so we can get a bigger picture of exactly the events that are transpiring,” Kimbell said.

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