- Mexico and China are the main sources of US fentanyl
- Most of the drug comes into US thru illegal traffic from Mexico
- The record number of fentanyl deaths in the US coincides with the record number of illegal border crossers entering the southern US border
- Since 1999, 1 million Americans have died of drug overdoses
- That's more than the number of US troops who have died in all wars fought by US
- In a recent one-year period, more than twice as many Americans died of drug overdoses than gun violence deaths or traffic fatalities
The following is an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the Commission on Combatting Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.
Cumulatively, since 1999, drug overdoses have killed approximately 1 million Americans. That number exceeds the number of U.S. service members who have died in battle in all wars fought by the United States. Even worse is that the United States has never experienced the level of drug overdose fatalities seen right now.
In just the 12 months between June 2020 and May 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdose—more than twice the number of U.S. traffic fatalities or gun-violence deaths during that period. Some two-thirds of these deaths—about 170 fatalities each day, primarily among those ages 18 to 45—involved synthetic opioids.
The primary driver of the opioid epidemic today is illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
In 2018, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the cost of overdose fatalities was $696 billion, despite being roughly two-thirds of annual overdose deaths today. It is therefore reasonable to estimate that drug overdoses are now costing the United States approximately $1 trillion annually.
Given these fatalities, the Commission finds the trafficking of synthetic drugs into the United States to be not just a public health emergency but a national emergency that threatens both the national security and economic well-being of the country.
In terms of loss of life and damage to the economy, illicit synthetic opioids have the effect of a slow-motion weapon of mass destruction in pill form.
The rise in illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioid misuse and related deaths has its origins in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the prescription opioid painkiller OxyContin in 1995. Since then, the number of fatal drug overdoses has steadily climbed.
OxyContin and other prescription opioids were falsely marketed as an easy, nonaddictive fix for pain without an appreciation of a patient’s other conditions, such as depression, trauma, and anxiety, which could drive the drugs’ misuse. Prescription opioid dependence and addiction increased dramatically in the United States, and traffickers and other criminals exploited the opportunities presented.
People with substance-use disorder, unable to continue obtaining prescription drugs, often turned to heroin and then—sometimes unknowingly—to powerful synthetic opioids.
In less than a decade, illegal U.S. drug markets that were once dominated by diverted prescription opioids and heroin became saturated with illegally manufactured synthetic opioids. Some of these synthetic variants are cheaper and easier to produce than heroin making them attractive alternatives to criminals who lace them into heroin and other illicit drugs or press them into often-deadly counterfeit pills.
Mexico is the principal source of this illicit fentanyl and its analogues today. In Mexico, cartels manufacture these poisons in clandestine laboratories with ingredients—precursor chemicals—sourced largely from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Because illicit fentanyl is so powerful and such a small amount goes such a long way, traffickers conceal hard-to-detect quantities in packages, in vehicles, and on persons and smuggle the drug across the U.S.–Mexico border.
It is difficult to interdict given that just a small physical amount of this potent drug is enough to satisfy U.S. demand, making it highly profitable for traffickers and dealers.
Indeed, the trafficking of synthetic opioids offers a more profitable alternative to heroin for Mexican drug traffickers. The Mexican government, in part out of self-preservation and in part because the trafficking problem transcends current law enforcement capacity, recently adopted a “hugs, not bullets” approach to managing the transnational criminal groups. However, such approaches have not been able to address trafficking issues, and further efforts will be needed.
The supply of illicit fentanyl cannot be permanently stopped through enforcement alone—only temporarily disrupted before another cartel, trafficking method, or analogue steps in to fill the market that addiction creates.
U.S. and Mexican efforts can disrupt the flow of synthetic opioids across U.S. borders, but real progress can come only by pairing illicit synthetic opioid supply disruption with decreasing the domestic U.S. demand for these drugs.
Congress established the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking to examine the causes of the influx of synthetic opioids, to understand how to reduce the trafficking of these drugs, and to identify solutions to mitigate a worsening overdose death crisis.
The magnitude of this fast-moving problem and the unique challenges it presents will require a new and different national response across all levels of government and policy domains.
Read or download the entire commission report here.
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