Over 81,000 Americans died of drug overdoses between June 2019 and May 2020. It was the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in U.S. history, driven in large part by a near-40% increase in deaths attributable to synthetic opioids, like fentanyl and its analogues. This staggering increase does not account for the also-shocking over 26% increase in deaths attributable to cocaine overdose, which can also be linked to the rising prevalence of cocaine being cut with synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
It’s likely that these numbers will continue to rise for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is the Biden administration’s focus on trying to turn the tide on America’s dismal COVID-19 response. Vanquishing the threat of COVID-19 is, of course, a righteous effort, long in coming, and to its credit the administration has paid heed to the unique threat the opioid epidemic poses to Americans from almost the start.
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But, there are things the Biden administration can do right now — beyond the largely demand-side focus we can expect — to address the special risk posed by synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, delivered by drone at or near the U.S. border.
UNDERSTANDING THE SYNTHETIC OPIOIDS THREAT
There are several traits of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, that make them particularly dangerous. First, this family of drugs are lab-made. This means that, like an even more shadowy version of the methamphetamine cooked up by Walter White in the television show “Breaking Bad” (if you can imagine that), regulators and law enforcement often find themselves in a game of catch-up with chemists on illicit payrolls. Drug makers can tweak the drugs’ chemical formulas to escape application of regulatory definition, make the drugs harder to detect, and even increase their potency.
Second, fentanyl in particular has legitimate medical uses. Originally designed and intended as a more powerful, faster-working alternative to morphine for surgery and post-operative pain management, it is still widely used medically. Thus, the world’s major drug-producing nations — China and increasingly India — have a robust pharmaceutical industry that caters to the legitimate demand, and in doing so produce, stockpile, and sell the precursor chemicals necessary to manufacture synthetic opioids. China is the primary supplier of fentanyl to the whole of North America. Its sales, both legitimate and not, of fentanyl and its precursors to Mexico are especially problematic given the rise in power and boldness of technologically savvy drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). These groups operate with near impunity in Mexico despite the “best efforts” of the feckless López-Obrador administration.
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Source: Michael Sinclair
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