- - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In round numbers, 20,000 Americans who were alive at the beginning of 2015 did not live to see the New Year because of heroin and fentanyl trafficked from Mexico and China. This massive loss of life came in spite of the heroic work of first responders around the United States and the wider availability of the recovery medication naloxone, without which the overall loss would have been far higher.

The Centers for Disease Control have just released the 2015 narcotic death statistics. According to the CDC, 12,990 American citizens died from heroin overdoses, a 23 percent increase from 2014’s 10,574 heroin deaths. Another 9,580 Americans died from overdosing on synthetic opioids, primarily from the fentanyl group, a huge increase from 2014, up 73 percent from 5,544 the previous year. Since the victims frequently combine heroin and fentanyl together and to avoid double counting, the CDC said, “Taken together, 19,885 Americans lost their lives in 2015 to deaths involving primarily illicit opioids.” Twenty thousand dead in round numbers.

To put this in perspective, according to U.S. government official statistics, there were 16,899 fatalities to U.S. forces in Vietnam during 1968, the highest yearly level of the war. This means that in 2015, illicit opioid deaths of Americans were 18 percent higher than U.S. battle deaths in the Vietnam War at its height.

After 1968, the Vietnam fatality levels declined markedly. There is nothing to suggest that heroin and fentanyl death rates will similarly decline with time. In fact, based on local reporting so far this year, there is every likelihood that when the 2016 numbers come out at this time next year, the losses to young American men and women will be indeed staggering. In fact, the 2016 numbers could be 50 percent or more higher than the Vietnam War fatalities at its worst.

Yes, those dying of opioid overdoses are volunteers, but we don’t call it “getting hooked” for nothing. Even the most caring and expensive substance abuse treatment is up against a vicious foe when it comes to opioids like Mexican heroin and Chinese fentanyl. Treatment programs vary widely and there are no agreed-upon statistics on relapse rates. But according to Stephen Gilman, a treatment specialist physician in New York City, about 85 percent of those who go off opioids relapse within one year. On a recent “60 Minutes” program, one of the sufferers described going in and out of rehabilitation facilities over and over again with no obvious improvement.

Certainly, those who are now addicted deserve our concern, whatever the relapse rate. Congress has just moved to appropriate $1 billion for treatment options. This may help those currently suffering, but it does nothing to prevent tens of thousands of other Americans becoming newly addicted and dying miserable deaths.

Prevention is the real role for government in halting the unnecessary deaths of Americans from poison pouring over the border and this is where the Obama administration has failed spectacularly. The fact that Mexican heroin and Chinese fentanyl are widely available, and cheap, in every community in the country tells us that the administration has let the flood gates open with disastrous consequences. Just recently, a batch of “bad heroin” was responsible for the overdose deaths of 35 people over five days in Philadelphia. The toxicology reports are not back yet, but the report of “bad heroin” may turn out to be heroin laced with one of the relatives of fentanyl. In the competitive street drug environment, Chinese chemists are trying to stay ahead by changing the potency to the point where American dealers don’t know how much to dilute it.

The fentanyl-related drugs are now so potent that they even pose a danger to first responders and K-9 officers when this junk gets airborne.

Help is on the way. During the election campaign, Donald Trump went right after the problem, promising to target drug traffickers more aggressively through prosecution and border enforcement. The nomination of Marine Gen. John Kelly as secretary of homeland security is an excellent start. His last assignment before retiring was as commander of the U.S. Southern Command. Southcom covers U.S. responsibilities south of Mexico and gave Gen. Kelly a useful appreciation of the situation facing citizens of Latin America who may wish to become illegal migrants to the United States. The general is a strong proponent of border security.

The bottom line is that the deaths of 20,000 Americans lie at President Obama’s door and next year, there will be still more to be counted from his watch. Even with a Trump 100-day push on border security, we can’t expect the death rate from trafficked Mexican heroin and Chinese fentanyl to come down much before December 2017. But it will come down, and someone’s child who might otherwise have been lost, will live.

William C. Triplett, II is the former chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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