The news today is dominated with stories about our trade issues with China. Headlines regularly highlight the diplomatic, political and military aspects of the economic dispute between these two geopolitical rivals. But lost in the headlines is one often overlooked, but important aspect, namely the role illegal synthetic opioids coming from China have played in increasing drug overdose deaths in the United States. It is well past time to fight this epidemic and with the right steps, both the Trump Administration and Congress can work together to remove this scourge from our streets.
The crisis, to some extent, has been masked by a successful drive to increase awareness about the over-prescribing of legal opioid drugs. For the first time since 1990, the number of drug overdose deaths has declined, driven in large part by a drop in deaths related to prescription drugs. But the progress we have made in this area threatens to be eclipsed by a surge of fentanyl overdose deaths.
Fentanyl is an extremely addictive and potent synthetic opioid. About 2 milligrams—or four grains of salt—can kill. This synthetic drug is manufactured to mimic the effects of opiates and is by and large created in Chinese laboratories and smuggled into the country by Mexican drug cartels.
Recent drug busts highlight just how dangerous illegally manufactured and criminally obtained synthetic opioids are to the addiction crisis in America. A late-August drug bust spanning a trio of states confiscated enough fentanyl to kill 14 million Americans. While that operation seems notable, it’s unfortunately just a blip on the radar screen for these criminal enterprises.
China ostensibly has taken some actions to limit and control fentanyl at the request of the United States, with mixed results. For example, in May of this year, the country’s National Narcotics Control Commission finally designated fentanyl as a “controlled substance.” But domestic enforcement of previous anti-fentanyl statutes is not taking place. In early 2016 China agreed to cooperate with the Obama Administration on “enhanced measures” to close down the fentanyl trade but in the following years seizures of illicit fentanyl increased significantly, not decreased. It appears something more must be done to spur the Chinese into action.
Drug smuggling at the southern border, meanwhile, has surged of late, with seizures of fentanyl more than doubling from just from 2017 to 2018. The Mexican drug cartels have decades of experience running illicit contraband and engaging in human trafficking and they have a huge financial stake in keeping these “supply routes” open. Finding a way to diminish the economic incentives of this trade may be what is needed to shut it down once and for all.
Congress can act upon this growing problem by passing the Fentanyl Sanctions Act, a bipartisan bill that would counter the Chinese manufacturers’ operations, and the Mexican drug cartels that smuggle and distribute synthetic opioids into this country.
Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, my home state and one of the worst affected by the opioid crisis, is one of the original sponsors of this bill. In 2016, fentanyl replaced heroin as the top cause of drug overdoses in the state, causing 2,395 fentanyl fatalities that year. Sen. Toomey’s support indicates the promise this legislation has to make a dent in the fentanyl trade and to help those states worst affected by the opioid crisis.
Fentanyl smuggling also continues through the mail. The passage of Senator Rob Portman’s Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention, or “STOP” Act has had success in limiting the direct mail campaign Chinese labs are engaging in, but we still have a ways to go. That is why President Trump is drafting an Executive Order that would increase inspections of mailed packages from China, to once and for all stop shipments of this deadly drug directly to our front doorsteps.
It appears that the number of drug overdose deaths may finally be trending downwards from all-time highs due to the successes of treatment programs and overdose reducing drugs as well as greater awareness. We must now find a way to end the manufacturing and trafficking of synthetic opioids. These drugs weaken individual Americans, threaten families and undermine our society, and we must get them off our streets to ensure the health and welfare of all Americans.
Earl Baker is a former State Senator and the former RNC State Chairman of Pennsylvania. While a County Commissioner, he chaired the State Association’s Human Service Committee.