Last October, President Trump declared the opioid crisis in America a “national health emergency” and said his administration is working to address the crisis.
But the epidemic is rapidly getting worse.
And we are beginning to learn why.
A report published this week in the journal JAMA found that synthetic opioids (fentanyl, for example) have overtaken prescription opioids as the most common killer in the epidemic.
The report’s authors calculated both the number and percentage of synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths in the U.S. from 2010-2016 by reviewing death certificates from the National Vital Statistics System. They found that 46 percent of opioid deaths involved synthetics, while just 40 percent of the deaths involved prescription drugs.
The trend is downright scary.
In 2010, synthetics accounted for about 15 percent of opioid overdose deaths, which means the increase caused by synthetics is roughly 300 percent in six years.
CNN reports, “Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than other opioids such as morphine, heroin and oxycodone, according to Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, who was not involved in the most recent report. Though fentanyl can be prescribed by a physician for pain relief, the vast majority of overdose cases are thought to be the result of illicit production and distribution.”
There have been some successes. Over the last several years, the availability of controlled prescription drugs, and therefore overdose deaths from prescription opioids alone, has declined significantly with federal and state policy interventions, the closure of illegal clinics prescription opioids on the black market, and efforts by medical professionals to engage in responsible prescribing practices.
Despite these positive steps, opioid overdoses are still sharply on the rise. The Center for Disease Control just released data showing that the number of opioid overdoses increased by 30 percent in 2017 — and that the growth in overdoses was not caused by prescription painkillers, but rather by illegal synthetic opioids. Mexican cartels and Chinese drug smugglers have flooded the U.S. with two incredibly dangerous and inexpensive drugs: fentanyl (which is more potent than morphine) and counterfeit pills (made to look like legitimate prescription drugs, but often combine heroin and synthetic opioids).
It appears that the crackdown on prescription drugs had led to a subsequent rise in illegal opioid alternatives. These illegal drugs are being trafficked into the U.S. by criminal smugglers primarily from Mexico and China. Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, the criminal enterprise once led by Joaqun “El Chapo” Guzmn, is a driving force in the surge in fentanyl crossing the border.
The rate at which these illegal drugs cross our borders is truly alarming — and it is staggering how deadly they are. The Drug Enforcement Agency reports that fentanyl can be 50 times as potent as heroin, and even the smallest amount — about 2 milligrams, or about 4 grains of salt — is deadly. Its chemical cousin, carfentanil, is even worse — just a single grain can kill. In February, 33 pounds of fentanyl was seized in Boston by federal agents and police. That would have been enough to kill 7 million people, or more than the entire population of Massachusetts.
Federal and state agencies have spent years tightening regulations and increasing enforcement on prescription opioids, but this has only led to additional efforts by drug cartels to fill the growing gap in the illicit pharmaceutical market.
The safety of our citizens demands a new crackdown on foreign enemies like Mexican drug cartels and Chinese fentanyl smugglers to stop dangerous drug smuggling.
Congress has held hearings on the opioid epidemic, but there must be further investigation into illegally manufactured and criminally obtained drugs as part of the addiction crisis. Congress must go further by holding hearings on how easily illegal fentanyl from Mexico and China is slipping across our borders.
The opioid crisis threatens all Americans. The bottom line is that opioid addiction is a complex social problem, one that involves drug manufacturers, distributors, regulators, doctors, legislators, and law enforcement — to name only a few. The current assumption that this crisis can be solved by simply overregulating prescription drugs is false.
We must focus on shutting down the bourgeoning criminal drug pipelines from Mexico and China. Supporting law enforcement must become a major part of the solution — but sadly today it’s not. The reality is that law enforcement is being outspent and outmanned by these sophisticated, billion-dollar criminal enterprises.
The Trump administration and Congress have an opportunity to lead and take responsibility for ensuring our country’s health and safety. Congress needs to investigate with urgency and focus. It’s time to act.
• Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His “Mack on Politics” podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on WashingtonTimes.com.
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