Every decade produces a new drug to terrorize the mean streets, the family hearth and especially threatens the young. Heroin was the scourge of the ‘70s. Cocaine scourged the ‘80s and crack was the nightmare of the ‘90s, hitting hardest those trying to survive on the margins and who would mortgage the future for a brief escape from misery. To be sure, these drugs have been with man for centuries, but they have returned to modern times with a vengeance.
Now the focus is on opioids, a class of drugs that are derivatives of heroin, among other drugs. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, as are other familiar painkillers like OxyContin, hydrocodone, morphine and others. In proper dosages these can be wonderful painkillers, binding to receptor cells in the brain and throughout the body, but in addition to relieving pain they produce a euphoria that is quickly addictive. “The opioid epidemic and addiction more broadly has become the defining public health crisis of our generation,” says Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.
The widespread usage of these drugs and synthetic derivatives has had a devastating effect across the country and particularly in pockets of poverty and hard times in the states between the coasts. President Trump deserves considerable credit for talking about opioids, putting the problem into the national conversation and taking firm steps to do something about it.
He told a conference of first responders and law-enforcement officials last month in Georgia that “we will not solve this epidemic overnight, but we will [solve it].”
In 2018, the president set out an initiative called, in the sparkling prose of the bureaucracy, the Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand, which the White House said was “a first-of-its-kind effort to identify the factors fueling the opioid crisis and to make real change.” Congress appropriated $6 billion to deal with opioid abuse, and the federal government has further awarded $1 billion in annual grants to state, tribal and local partners to confront addiction and trafficking.
The Trump administration says there has been a 5 percent decrease in deaths since in the same 12-month period last year, and that’s good. There’s particular concern about the flood of fentanyl entering the United States, much of it manufactured in China and coming across the U.S.-Mexican border.
In 2017 alone, according to U.S. government statistics, almost 1,200 pounds of fentanyl were seized at legal crossing points. The drug arrives in operations organized by Mexican drug cartels. Fentanyl, though a synthetic opioid, is said to be a hundred times more potent than morphine. Only a few grains of it can be lethal, however, which is why it is so tightly controlled.
In his speech to that law-enforcement audience in Georgia, President Trump said that “in the past two years, Customs and Border Protection seizures of meth, and cocaine, and heroin, and fentanyl at the southern border are up 45 percent and going up much higher. We are seizing it all over.”
That’s making a difference, and that the president put pressure on China to do something about it on the Chinese end of the supply chain has led to real change, despite the trade war with China. Beijing agreed to classify all fentanyl-related drugs as controlled substances and enact laws to govern the manufacture, sale and distribution of them criminal violations rather than industrial offenses.
Dealing with the flood of opioids is beyond the capability of many local communities, and many of those communities are always on the scout for opportunities to pay for dealing with the effects of the epidemic on their thin resources. But deal with it the nation must.