The following was published in theNew York Daily News by contributor Joseph Borelli:
The suburban and mostly middle-class borough of New York City I represent is no stranger to opioid addiction. We’ve even had our own episode of National Geographic’s “Drugs, Inc.”
Staten Island has the highest per capita overdose death rate in the city. Yet what’s most astounding is that half of all 116 fatalities in 2016 were the result of a deadly synthetic opioid called fentanyl, over 50 times more potent than morphine.
Citywide, it was responsible for 44% of all overdose deaths. Across the river, New Jersey saw a five-fold increase in fentanyl deaths in two years.
Nationally, the death rate from fentanyl and fentanyl analog overdoses rose 620% over three years, and is now responsible for over 20,000 deaths.
Last Monday, when President Trump traveled to New Hampshire to roll out his administration’s opioid plan, he was right to put bullseyes on fentanyl, its traffickers and the countries where it is produced.
Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1959 as an effective pain reliever and several formulas have since been approved for pharmaceutical and veterinary use. But according to a UN report, at least a dozen new analogs have been developed in the last five years for illicit use on the black market.
Federal, state and local law enforcement have been somewhat successful in scoring big busts. Last year officials in New Jersey seized 47 kilos, enough to kill 18 million people; and in February the NYPD foiled a plot to hide nine pounds of fentanyl in a shipment of fish filets.
But where does it all come from?
Fentanyl analogues aren’t easy to make. The process is complex and the ingredients aren’t found in retail stores. There aren’t many Walter Whites; the UN report cites just three examples of underground labs found in the United States.
In reality, illicit fentanyl analogs are almost entirely produced abroad and access U.S. markets through porous borders, ports of entry, and in the mail. China has long been the main source of high-purity fentanyl; but as HHS Secretary Alex Azar told a panel last week, production is “democratizing,” with Mexico now flooding the market with higher volumes of a lower-grade product.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the administration has touted the border wall as an impediment to the cartels. Even the Obama administration acknowledged that the majority of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl comes smuggled through our Southwest border.
Still, the wall is just part of the administration’s plan. In January, the President signed legislation appropriating $9 million to the Department of Homeland Security for the purchase of hundreds of new screening devices to detect fentanyl and other substances at airports and other ports of entry. The full opioid plan calls for increasing the amount of technology and canines, as well as requiring advanced electronic data on 90% of all mail and consignment shipments within three years.
Yet perhaps the biggest shift in strategy is to recalibrate part of the administration’s efforts towards targeting the foreign points of production and the trade of precursor chemicals. To accomplish this, Trump must engage with China and expand our collaboration with Mexico.
China has been careful not to accept blame for America’s opioid woes, but its Ministry of Public Security was eager to show its cooperation on fentanyl in advance of Trump’s visit last November. There have already been two indictments of Chinese nationals, and the state ministry in charge recently added scheduling controls on two fentanyl precursor chemicals, in addition to eight fentanyl-class substances they scheduled in 2017.
In Mexico, the situation may be more complex, but there is also a longer history of cooperation between the two countries. Fentanyl was one of the main topics of talk between then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray last month, and the Trump administration leveraged the support of the UN in 2017 to internationally schedule two critical precursor chemicals and the analog butyrfentanyl.
At home, the effort to domestically reclassify precursors and analogs and has begun in earnest, and not just at the federal level. New York announced it would weigh adding 11 fentanyl analogs to its controlled substance list this year. States like Pennsylvania are following suit, while others like Massachusetts are strengthening provisions they’ve already made.
Federally, the Justice Department has already ordered the emergency scheduling of all fentanyl analogs, freeing prosecutors from some cumbersome evidentiary hurdles in actions against traffickers. Now the administration wants permanently classify them as Schedule 1, the strictest level.
The goal of all this is to fundamentally reduce the number of overdose deaths in the U.S., something which nearly every advocate, doctor and authority agrees has risen in conjunction with the availability of fentanyl. In this regard, the Trump administration is bringing its guns to bear on the right target wherever it can.
Joseph Borelli is the minority whip of the New York City Council, Republican commentator, professor and Lindsay Fellow at the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance. He has also been published in the Washington Times and appears on Fox News, Fox Business, CNN and HLN. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeBorelliNYC.