Coverage of the rise in drug overdoses caused by opioids is rightly drawing attention to the economic and social destruction caused by addiction and drug abuse in America. Unfortunately, political responses often operate on the false premise that doctors or prescription painkillers and their manufacturers are primarily to blame. Patients are increasingly suffering as a result, while the real bad actors are too often being ignored.
For years, the primary political response to opioid abuse has been to heavily scrutinize doctors treating patients with chronic or severe pain and restrict access to prescription painkillers. But the outcome of this approach has not been positive.
As the number of opioid prescriptions has declined since 2011, overall opioid-related overdoses have skyrocketed. That’s because while strangling legitimate doctor-advised prescriptions has led to a slight reduction in the growth of prescription opioid-involved overdoses, these slight gains have been swamped by increases in overdoses associated with illicit opioids, driven by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The crackdown on prescription drugs led to a subsequent rise in illegal opioid alternatives. These illegal drugs are being trafficked into the U.S. by criminal smugglers primarily from Mexico and China. Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, the criminal enterprise once led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, is a driving force in the surge in fentanyl crossing the border, while Chinese drug manufacturers will ship fentanyl via international mail to any address in the world.
Fentanyl is extremely potent — about 100 times more so than morphine and 50 times more than heroin. It’s a threat not only to users, but also to law enforcement, medical personnel, and first responders — even to police dogs used for sniffing drugs. To illustrate, in May 2017, an Ohio police officer overdosed merely from brushing fentanyl residue leftover from an earlier drug bust off his uniform.
Overall, deaths from fentanyl have risen from 3,000 to more than 20,000, an astonishing 540-percent increase, just since 2013. Prior to this, deaths attributed to synthetic opioid overdoses were relatively stable. A growing body of research is blaming the spike on policies that have driven abusers and pain sufferers alike toward illicit markets.
This failure to properly diagnose the real bad actors behind the opioid crisis — foreign criminals supplying illegally manufactured drugs — is partly why my organization recently formed Taxpayers Against Illicit Opioids, which aims to educate on the dangers posed by illicit opioids in hopes of directing policy responses toward the right problem: the largely ignored surge in illicit opioids from Chinese-manufactured drugs smuggled in by Mexican cartels.
Once these drugs reach America, unscrupulous dealers often then add fentanyl to heroin and other drugs to make them more powerful, contributing to a spike in fentanyl overdoses among unsuspecting users. Some of the drugs are also manufactured to resemble legitimate prescription medications, thereby tricking pain sufferers who, having been denied treatment thanks to crackdowns on prescription medications, turned in their desperation for relief to the illicit market. Unfortunately, these counterfeits can come with lethal consequences.
The proliferation of illicit opioids smuggled from Mexico and China and their misuse is costing taxpayers, big time. The full economic costs since 2001 are estimated at over $1 trillion. The longer the problem drags on, the higher the bill will climb. It’s clear that lawmakers need a new approach, one that prioritizes stopping illicit and counterfeit opioids over restricting access to legitimate medications.
Andrew F. Quinlan is co-founder and president of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.