For the average American family, conversations about COVID-19 occur daily. But how often do you find yourself talking about the drug crisis? Drug poisoning killed nearly 92,000 Americans in 2020, and fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine — along with other synthetic opioids, accounted for more than half of those deaths — over 56,000. Only a few grains of fentanyl can be lethal and is often laced with other deadly drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.
This has led to fentanyl overdoses surging to the leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 45, according to an analysis of U.S. government data published by Families Against Fentanyl. Between 2020 and 2021, nearly 79,000 people between 18 and 45 — 37,208 in 2020 and 41,587 in 2021 — died of fentanyl overdoses, and 2022 is expected to be even higher. Perhaps most remarkable, fentanyl has proven even more deadly for this age group than the COVID-19 virus.
If this trend continues, in the next 36 months, we will lose approximately a quarter of a million Americans to fentanyl. It will be like losing the entire population of Spokane, Washington, or Laredo, Texas, or St. Petersburg, Florida, to overdose deaths.
In the 1980s, we faced another drug overdose crisis, with crack and powder cocaine killing over 25,000 Americans in seven years. In response, Congress passed one of its most sweeping criminal justice bills — the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — which increased minimum incarceration sentences for drug offenses sending a potent message to drug traffickers — murdering our citizens will not be tolerated.
So, what’s the plan today to address an overdose epidemic that has dwarfed the epidemic we faced in the ’80s?
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, China ships the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl to Mexico. Mexican drug cartels process it into fentanyl and then illegally transport it to the United States, primarily across the southwest border. Aggressively attacking this process is the roadmap to disrupt, dismantle and destroy drug trafficking organizations.
First, the U.S. needs to demand that both Mexico and China stop the illicit movement of fentanyl precursor chemicals. Mexico has banned the precursor chemicals used to make methamphetamine. It’s time it does the same for fentanyl precursors.
Second, and most importantly, the U.S. must immediately demand that Mexico rescind legislation passed in late 2020 that effectively eliminated DEA’s ability to work with Mexican law enforcement. That legislation, which strips foreign agents of their diplomatic immunity, was passed by the Mexican Congress in response to a diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Mexico. It has since crippled DEA’s ability to fight Mexican drug cartels.
The legislation also made the prospect of international law enforcement cooperation more burdensome by requiring Mexican public servants — state, federal or local — who receive any communication from a U.S. agent “to deliver a written report to the foreign relations department and the public safety department within three days.” DEA officials predicted this would hamper effective law enforcement.
“You’re going to see a situation where the efforts of U.S. agencies, especially with the DEA, are significantly going to be diminished,” former DEA chief of international operations Mike Vigil predicted last year. “They want to relegate the agencies like DEA to doing nothing more than staying in the office and just passing information.”
He was right. President Biden must use his influence to ensure this damaging legislation is reversed immediately.
Third, our southern border must be secured to prevent drug traffickers from flooding our communities with deadly drugs. And finally, Congress needs to pass legislation that increases criminal penalties for fentanyl trafficking. That sends the same clear message we sent to drug traffickers in the ’80s — murdering our citizens will not be tolerated.
The success of this plan is possible. For example, in 2018, due to the aggressive anti-drug policies of the previous administration, drug overdose deaths declined for the first time in decades; now, it’s exploding. Only by applying the same energy and focus as we have attacking COVID-19 can we reverse this deadly trend. The lives of tens of thousands of Americans depend on it.
To read the entire Washington Times article, please click here.
Uttam Dhillon is the former acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration and is now a principal at Michael Best Consulting LLC. T. Michael Andrews is the former staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and, currently senior vice president at McGuireWoods Consulting Federal Practice.