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July 20, 2022

Opioid onslaught: Fentanyl is washing into the country

Credit: Cumberland Times-News

Lost in the fog of the various crises America has grappled with in the past few years has been the synthetic opioid crisis.

Over 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, with 75% being from fentanyl. That’s more than died from firearms, homicide or vehicular crashes.

The leading cause of death among those in the age range of 18 to 45 is overdose. It’s caused the country’s life expectancy to go down.

Since 1999, over one million Americans have died from a drug overdose, according to findings from the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.

In 2020, using the National Defense Authorization Act, the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking was formed. In February, the commission released its 148-page report detailing the depths of the crisis and where to go from here.

The commission estimated that drug overdoses cost the country about $1 trillion a year.

It’s a crisis of the highest order, there are no two ways about it. And to make matters worse, there’s no easy way out.

In the report, the situation is broken down into supply and demand. Supply, where it comes from and how easy it is for suppliers to acquire, is such that there is no practical way to cut it off.

From 2014 to 2019, most fentanyl in its pure form came from China, was accessible online and shipped through the postal service.

“One Sweet N’ Low packet (of fentanyl) could kill 500,” said U.S. Rep. David Trone, a co-chair on the commission. “(It’s like trying to) find a grain of salt on the beach.”

Due, in part, to pressure from the U.S. government, China’s central government took greater control of the production of the substance in 2019.

However, the problem did not go away, rather it shifted. Mexico became the principal source of fentanyl coming illegally into the country. Meanwhile, China continues to be the source of the precursor chemicals rather than the drug itself.

This is due to the structure of the Chinese government and how local authorities are in charge of inspections but due to financial considerations are disincentivized from proper inspection into suspected fentanyl precursor chemical producers.

The cartels of Mexico have taken over the mantle, distributing fentanyl. Due to it’s potency, the amount needed for all of America could fit in two pickup trucks. Around 95% comes in through the border in commercial vehicles.

The cartels have taken to making counterfeit pills of drugs that are laced with the synthetic opioid, making consumption of a pill of unknown origin extra dangerous.

Cumberland Police Chief Chuck Ternent told the mayor and council Tuesday night his department has seen an increase in drug overdoses. “With our drug arrests … it’s all fentanyl. All our deaths are fentanyl. They might think they are buying heroin but it is just some fentanyl mixed in. Everything is fentanyl-based.”

All this said, the hope is in getting the demand side under control.

“We just look at the folks suffering addiction with stigma,” said Trone. “We have to eliminate the stigma.”

The top suggestion from the report to get the demand under control is to elevate the Office of National Drug Control Policy director back to a Cabinet position, so that there can be better cooperation across agencies. That office’s director was a Cabinet member from 1993 to 2014.

However, there are other things in the works, as well. The Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being act passed the House by a vote of 402-20 and is making its way through the Senate.

Still, more needs to be done. This is a problem with roots and roots can be the hardest to pull.