- - Tuesday, January 29, 2019


Over a year ago, my team and I conducted a comprehensive assessment of our nation’s vulnerability to counterfeit prescription and dangerous drugs crossing our borders. We found the threat to be unprecedented in magnitude and worsening, as synthetic opioids like fentanyl are not only being smuggled in through Canada and Mexico, but also through the international postal system.

Since that report was issued, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has verified this concern through testimony from the Department of Homeland Security, which notes that drug cartels are targeting the American marketplace.

The cost of inaction regarding these warnings was verified recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s annual report on drug overdose deaths found that fatalities tied to fentanyl increased by 45 percent in 2017 alone. We have more people dying in this country from drug overdoses than from gun violence or car accidents and much of this alarming phenomenon is tied to international criminal enterprises preying upon our security vulnerabilities.

My concern is not only that policymakers aren’t taking the necessary steps to address this crisis, such as ensuring sufficient resources and improving technology for the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to better target suspect shipments coming through the mail and our ports, but that Washington may be on the verge of actually worsening this problem through prescription drug importation initiatives.

In both the executive and legislative branches of government, we’re seeing a distressing level of discussion about opening up our secure prescription drug system to medicines imported from other countries. The Department of Health and Human Services has established a working group to consider ways in which foreign drug importation might be implemented; and though it is rumored to be limited, even limited importation is a danger to an already overburdened system. It does not get better on Capitol Hill, where multiple bills to allow importation have resurfaced.

This is an extremely dangerous idea that requires a blind eye to a fundamental truth. For drug importation to be a reality, law enforcement entities must be able to protect against those who would see this policy as a promising new avenue to bring illegal and counterfeit drugs into the United States. And, despite what some might have you believe, that capability will never exist based on the magnitude of the law enforcement challenge created by drug importation initiatives.

In the current environment, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are already trying to cope with an unprecedented number of fentanyl-laced pills flooding their jurisdictions. Virtually every state has experienced counterfeit drugs, from fake cancer treatments to fake painkillers made with enough deadly fentanyl to kill adults in a fraction of a pill. As this trafficking and subsequent fatalities have increased, our law enforcement resources are being stretched dangerously thin.

Today, we’re seeing local police labs seizing suspect counterfeit medicines and having to wait as long as three months for testing to be completed because labs are dealing with enormous illegal drug backlogs. Importation advocates argue that there is no danger in importing low-cost medicines from our friendly neighbors in Canada with a misperception that these prescription drugs come from a safe Canadian prescription drug supply.

In reality, many of these dangerous counterfeit drugs will simply pass through Canada on the way to U.S. patients, originating from a counterfeit global supply. This also ignores the fact that Canada is dealing with its own fentanyl crisis and struggling to contain the problems posed by counterfeit drugs and organized crime involvement.

Canada has been clearly identified as a shipping route for fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills produced by criminal enterprises in China. The simple truth is that once we begin accepting medicines coming from outside our closed drug system closely monitored and secured by the Food and Drug Administration, our vulnerability is heightened.

We should be distressed that the CDC reported a record number of drug overdose deaths in the United States. But we should be even more concerned that this record will continue to be surpassed year after year unless the right decisions are made to better protect the safety and well-being of our citizens. This means equipping our law enforcement entities with the tools and resources to shut down illegal drug entry points. It also means avoiding proposals, such as allowing foreign drug importation, that would only exacerbate a problem that has already reached crisis proportions.

• Louis J. Freeh, former director of the FBI and a former federal judge, is currently chairman of Freeh Group International Solutions.

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