Cherylyn Harley LeBon

Cherylyn Harley LeBon

The opioid crisis is touching every corner of America with nearly every demographic being affected. It is estimated that drug overdoses killed over 70,000 Americans during 2017, a rise of 10 percent since 2016, which is more than the yearly death tolls from HIV, car crashes and gun deaths combined.

We want to blame prescription drug abuse, irresponsible doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry for this crisis, but recent data reveals a different story. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently published data through their National Vital Statistics Report concluding that deaths from fentanyl increased 520 percent from 2013 to 2016, while new data show that overdoses from prescription drugs remained flat for the first time in recent history. Over the last few years, the availability of controlled prescription drugs and, consequently, overdose deaths from prescription opioids alone has declined with the assistance of federal and state policy initiatives. A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 31 out of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, have established mandatory waiting periods for prescription opioids. Laws that make it too hard for chronic pain patients to get prescription drugs from their doctors could be forcing addicts to self-prescribe via the black market for heroin and other illegal drugs.

However, while prescription drug use is decreasing, other opioids are making their way across the borders. Specifically, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is more potent than morphine. Also, counterfeit pills made to look like legal prescription drugs but are laced with heroin and other synthetic opioids. Both are filtering through the United States through our porous southern border and with the help of Chinese drug traffickers.

Many heard of fentanyl and its deadly consequences through the deaths of well-known singers. But the CDC reported that out of 5,152 opioid-related deaths in 10 states, fentanyl was a factor in 3,700 of them. Fentanyl is now a household name. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that fentanyl can be 50 times as potent as heroin. Even the smallest amount — about 2 milligrams, or about 4 grains of salt — is deadly. Its chemical relative, carfentanil, is even more deadly — just a single grain can kill. However, fentanyl is easier to obtain and transport than heroin because it is much more potent than other opioid painkillers. Only a small amount packs a hefty dose. This makes it possible for fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs to be widely distributed once they cross the U.S. border.

Government policies, private sector self-policing, and the medical community all deserve praise for the declines in prescription drug diversion and abuse. States created innovative ways to treat and rehabilitate addicts.

If our country is going to stop the flow of fentanyl and counterfeit pills to the United States, an effective national plan to combat drug trafficking from Mexico and China is required. Federal and state agencies have spent years tightening regulations and increasing enforcement on prescription opioids, but this has only created a new market for drug cartels. Drug traffickers see a new business opportunity: wrongfully selling illegal drugs as legitimate medicines and further escalating American drug addiction. Additionally, the illicit drug trade brings other affiliated crimes: human trafficking, sex trafficking, arms trafficking and a steady stream of “coyotes” on the southern border.

Thankfully, the opioid crisis is a bipartisan issue. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle realize the importance of increased support for the border security measures necessary to stop the inflow of these harmful drugs. Some members of Congress are rightfully pushing for increased staffing and improved technology at legal ports of entry to stop the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. If we combat this issue with the same approach we employed in reducing prescription drug use, then we will have the preventative measures to keep these dangerous opioids from entering the country.

Cherylyn Harley LeBon is a strategist, commentator, and former senior counsel with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

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