It’s clear that both Democrats and Republicans agree that America’s opioid epidemic, including the explosion of overdose deaths attributed to fentanyl, is a national crisis.
“Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in the state of Missouri for adults between 18 and 44,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told Spectrum News.
President Joe Biden made addressing the opioid crisis a central theme in his State of the Union address earlier this month, expanding on it as part of his “Unity Agenda” — a group of issues which enjoy bipartisan support — which he laid out in last year’s annual message to the nation.
Biden referenced one of the guests at the address — a father named Doug from New Hampshire, who wrote the president and First Lady Jill Biden a letter about his daughter Courtney, who died of a fentanyl overdose..
"Describing the last eight years without her, Doug said, 'There is no worse pain,'" Biden continued. "Yet their family has turned pain into purpose, working to end stigma and change laws." "He told us he wants to 'start the journey towards America’s recovery.’"
“Doug, we’re with you," the president said. "Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year.”
Biden was then interrupted by Republican hecklers, who called out “it’s the border.”
One GOP heckler, Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles, shouted: ”It's your fault."
Biden smiled at the hecklers and continued laying out his plan to deal with the crisis: “Let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale, and trafficking, with more drug detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border.”
The exchange highlighted the divide over the issue. Republicans see the opioid epidemic as a border and law enforcement issue, with some in the GOP saying the Biden administration isn’t doing enough to stop Mexican drug cartels from bringing fentanyl into the country.
The Biden Administration contends it has a record number of personnel working to secure the border, noting they seized 23,000 pounds of fentanyl at the border in the last several months.
Fentanyl and related synthetic opioids are potent and can be transported in small amounts. When they first began having a major impact in the U.S. about a decade ago, they were largely being produced in labs in China and shipped into the country.
Over time that has changed. Experts say most of the supply is now made in Mexico from chemicals imported from China. The drug is pressed into fake prescription pills and added to other illegal drugs. Officials say it is being brought to the U.S. mostly through legal ports of entry, eluding detection.
Earlier this month, 21 Republican state attorneys general wrote a letter to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on them to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.
“The same cartels who produce and traffic this dangerous chemical are also assassinating rivals and government officials, ambushing, and killing Americans at the border, and engaging in an armed insurgency against the Mexican government,” the letter said. “This dangerous terrorist activity occurring at our border will not abate unless we escalate our response.”
Last year, a group of Republican AGs requested the president declare fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction. No action has been taken.
Some Republican lawmakers say that the Drug Enforcement Administration, which also plays a role in getting fentanyl off the street, isn’t to blame for the issue.
“I think our DEA is doing a lot,” said Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall. “And just to be frank, the problem continues to be an open border.”
Jared Forget, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Washington Division, says that one of the biggest problems the agency faces is that just two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal.
“That's enough to fit at the end of a sharpened pencil,” he told Spectrum News.
Many who take the drug, he said, don’t even realize it.
“We cannot tell the difference” he said, between a prescription drug pill and fentanyl that looks like medication.
“A DEA agent cannot tell the difference, certainly anyone in the public cannot tell the difference,” Forget said. “We have to send those to a DEA laboratory … we have to do a chemical analysis to determine whether or not it’s a fake pill.”
For the agency, battling the fentanyl crisis is about more than getting it off the streets but raising awareness among those at risk of an unintentional overdose.
“They're really harnessing social media, to to target young people that oftentimes don't even know that they're taking a fake pill containing fentanyl,” Forget said.
To combat that, the DEA has an ongoing campaign called “One Pill Can Kill," which seeks to raise awareness that there are drugs out that may look harmless but are laced with fentanyl.