In the first year of his administration, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency. In 2017, drug overdoses killed a shocking 72,300 Americans. There was a time when the opioid crisis was blamed mostly on prescription painkiller abuse. But today, we have a great deal more data, and it has become clear that opioid deaths in America are now largely due to illegal synthetic opioids that are flooding into the US from China and through Mexican drug cartels.
Federal and state policies designed to deal with prescription drug abuse and private sector self-policing have made it a great deal more difficult to obtain prescription painkillers — even for those who have a real medical need. While the intentions of these efforts were good, there have been some unintended harmful consequences. For those who are true sufferers of severe and chronic pain and have a real medical need for pain management, it may be too difficult to obtain the needed prescribed medication. Laws that make it harder to obtain medically required medication, could force patients to self-prescribe via the black-market.
Even with all the federal and state enforcement efforts to clamp down on prescription painkillers, opioid overdoses have sharply risen. Why? Because Mexican drug cartels and Chinese drug smugglers have been flooding the US with counterfeit pills that are designed to look legitimate, but are, in fact, fakes made from heroin and synthetic opioids — like fentanyl. They are flooding the US with powerful and inexpensive synthetic opioids that make morphine and heroin seem like children’s aspirin.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that deaths involving synthetic opioids have risen sharply, while deaths from legitimate prescription opioids have fallen. A study by American Action Forum supported the CDC’s conclusions. The bottom line is that synthetic opioids are responsible for essentially all of the rise in opioid-related deaths.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that fentanyl can be 50 times more potent than heroin. That means that even an amount that is equal to 4 grains of salt can kill you. A similar synthetic opioid, carfentanil, is even more deadly. Drug smugglers like these deadly variants because they are so potent and easy to transport. Only a few grains packs a powerful and often deadly wallop. As a result, these synthetic opioids can easily be shipped in regular-sized mail with almost no chance of detection. The NIH says that “synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the US.”
These illegal and dangerous synthetic opioids are being trafficked into the US by criminal smugglers — primarily from Mexico and China.
China uses the US Postal Service (USPS) as an unwitting participant in this deadly scourge. China exploits loopholes in the USPS’s mail system to ship these lethal and illegal drugs to the US. China also sends the chemical components of fentanyl to Mexico where traffickers finalize the process pressing the mixture into counterfeit pills which are smuggled into the US. Americans take the pills, in many cases, believing them to be legitimate medicine made by American pharmaceutical companies. Of course, it is anything but legitimate pain medication and it most certainly isn’t made by American firms that are regulated and inspected by the FDA. The result is a deadly crisis.
To solve this crisis, we must first accurately understand and react to what is actually causing the crisis. Some prefer to grab headlines by harassing, suing and castigating legitimate pharmaceutical companies and conscientious medical professionals rather than actually addressing the root causes of the crisis. The undeniable facts prove this is both unjust and entirely ineffective. The real problem is the flood of illegal and dangerous synthetic opioids being smuggled into our country and in some cases manufactured in small criminal labs within our borders. We need to focus on the actual problem. It may make some feel better to attack and scapegoat legitimate pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals. But it won’t stem the tide or save lives. And it may make legal and necessary pain management ever harder to achieve despite the best efforts of licensed medical professionals and regulated pharmaceutical companies.
What is the solution? We must stop the flood of illegal and deadly synthetic opioids from being smuggled into our nation and neighborhoods. That means we need more robust border security — including improved barriers, better scanning technology and more customs officers to detect and stop the deadly flow. Chemical screening at ports of entry and at mail facilities will save lives. The USPS must update its international mail handling and scanning capabilities. Additionally, we must continue to press China to aggressively police its chemical manufacturers — most of whom have some government tie. We must also help Mexico defeat and destroy the drug cartels that kill Americans and Mexicans alike.
Additionally, we should trust America’s medical doctors to prescribe pain medication when and how needed. Denying people with real and chronic pain the medication they need to manage that pain, is inhumane and only pushes them into the black-market and thus helps feed the smugglers and cartels. That isn’t smart policy. We can’t end this crisis and save lives unless we aim our efforts at its real causes.