OPINION: Fentanyl — Escalating The Opioid Epidemic Into A Public Health And Safety Emergency

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A. Benjamin Mannes Expert on public safety and criminal justice reform
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In October 2017, President Trump declared a “national health emergency” in response to an Opioid Epidemic which caused up to 72,300 American deaths from overdoses that year.

That shocking death toll, more than the yearly death toll from HIV, automobile accidents or gun deaths combined; should have warranted a national emergency. But the national outrage for this public health emergency has not nearly reached the heights seen in the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics of the 1980s.

Sadly, thanks to the smuggling of synthetic Fentanyl, the opioid epidemic is getting dangerously worse.

In recent years, opioid epidemic causation has been attributed to the over-prescription of painkillers by negligent or corrupt healthcare professionals. A sharp uptick in deaths from the abuse of illicitly smuggled heroin and fentanyl, however, has been cited by Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently published data for a 520-percent increase in opioid deaths in just three years.

Meanwhile, the availability of controlled prescription drugs and overdose deaths from legally prescribed opioids have declined significantly in response to increased DEA enforcement initiatives on health care providers, federal and state policy interventions and collective lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies by state attorneys general.

Despite these efforts, opioid overdoses are still sharply on the rise due to the presence of the synthetically-manufactured Fentanyl; a drug so powerful it poses collateral exposure risks that are more deadly than that of certain types of asbestos and radiation.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that fentanyl can be 50 times as potent as heroin; an amount as small as four grains of salt can be deadly. To make matters worse, carfentanil (a synthetic cousin of fentanyl) has been found in mass overdoses in the past year; and is so deadly that just a single grain can be fatal.

This presents an urgent public health crisis, not only to those addicted who often unknowingly obtain Fentanyl under the guise of purchasing counterfeit pills and other drugs; but children and members of the public safety community as well.

So why isn’t America fighting this epidemic as aggressively as it did during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s? The answer may disappointingly be one of political will.

Recently, a myriad of political movements unrelated to the opioid epidemic are creating a perfect storm that could be hindering America from creating practical solutions to combat this true public health emergency.

The criminal justice reform movement has highlighted a narrative that “the war on drugs” was a failure and civil rights issue for anyone incarcerated under crack-era mandatory minimums. This narrative’s effect on locally elected mayors, judges and prosecutors have resulted in their failure to use proven law enforcement tactics like task forces.

While criminal justice reform is generally a positive movement, I strongly disagree with the popular belief that non-enforcement of drug crime is the answer. It is this belief that has resulted in a flood of outside money pouring into local prosecutor elections; which have resulted in sharp increases in crime and opioid deaths. If “nonviolent drug offenders” sell drugs that claim thousands of lives; how are they nonviolent?

True criminal justice reform lies within two things: alternative sentencing and restorative justice. To leave an offender on the street is to rob justice from their victims. Reforming the system is most appropriate in relation to giving someone a restoration of civil rights once they have proven that their criminal behavior is behind them.

While a myriad of cities are establishing policies to curb arrests for drug crimes, they are missing opportunities to create correctional treatment centers and restorative justice platforms at sentencing that can treat addicts through their exposure to the criminal justice system.

At the same time as enforcement is being curbed by criminal justice reform advocates; the naïve movement to abolish the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has emerged. Most in the “Abolish ICE” movement are doing so in protest to ICE’s immigration enforcement duties.

The truth is, ICE is actually the derivative of the U.S. Customs Service; which has been responsible for the enforcement of smuggling since 1789; from sex trafficking to narcotics to nuclear weapons.

This is important because the fentanyl that is killing so many on America’s streets is not the same fentanyl being prescribed to terminal cancer patients. Street fentanyl is illicitly manufactured in China and smuggled into the United States by Mexican Drug Cartels and a network of organized gangs, as Mexican and Central American seaports are far more vulnerable than their American counterparts.

Once across the border, fentanyl is trafficked in the same routes that illicit heroin is, at cheaper prices. Therefore, fentanyl is often used to cut other drugs like Cocaine, Heroin and Xanax, causing users to unwittingly overdose.

This epidemic is getting worse, and a pragmatic plan to combat this issue from federal, state, local and nongovernmental approaches are urgently needed to include:

  • The medical community ending the over-prescription of addictive opioids.
  • Local judiciaries and corrections sentencing drug offenders to long-term correctional treatment facilities where addicts can be rehabilitated.
  • Every state creating a pathway to full civil rights restoration outside the political pardon process so those reformed can have a second chance.

While many local jurisdictions are shifting resources from drug enforcement to public health in the furtherance of criminal justice reform; these initiatives need to have a successful track record.

Currently, the push for “safe-injection sites” are facing obstacles from the treatment community because, while reducing overdoses; they actually enable continued opioid use.

Furthermore, local directives to suspend law enforcement at opioid-fueled homeless encampments have created a surge in infectious disease and violent crime.

At the same time, a return to aggressive drug enforcement to address extremely toxic poisons like fentanyl from entering the United States is needed, as well. If five of the six online fentanyl vendors investigated in a Senate report were found to be based in China, then this needs to be part of the agenda in bilateral meetings on tariffs, intellectual property theft and North Korea.

This enforcement, however, needs to extend to local law enforcement, too. While a shift from mass-incarceration to treatment is a noble undertaking, local politicians need to understand that behind every addict in need of care is a drug dealer willing to poison them for money.

Now, with the deadly stakes of fentanyl and carfentanil on the streets, the need to aggressively prosecute these dealers is at an all-time high.

Drug-related street violence warranted a push for the federal government to tighten drug laws and issue harsher sentences in the 1980s and 90s; so where is the related conversation in the wake of upwards of 72,300 deaths?

Put simply, in an age of governance by sound-bite, the opioid epidemic needs a massive bipartisan effort to get it under control. This means a results-based, analytical approach from the treatment, healthcare law enforcement, judicial and inspector general communities to approach this issue from all sides.

If this isn’t what you are hearing from your local leaders, it’s time to elect some new ones who can put a resume behind their rhetoric and get to work on this horrific crisis.

Benjamin Mannes is a subject matter expert in public safety based in Philadelphia and an executive board Governor for InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public/private partnership for infrastructure protection. For a consultation, please visit his website.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.