Vice President Kamala Harris gathered state attorneys general from across the country at the White House on Tuesday to discuss fentanyl and illicit drugs in America.
In an interview with Spectrum News ahead of the meeting on Tuesday, Director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House Dr. Rahul Gupta said the group would discuss trafficking, specifically trafficking profits, expanding access to naloxone and addressing emerging threats like Xylazine – a powerful drug for sedating animals that is increasingly being found mixed with fentanyl.
“We each recognize and have joined together today, because we are facing a public health crisis,” Harris said, kicking off the meeting with attorneys general from Nevada, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Arizona, Oregon, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. “And it also therefore is an issue that must have a response that addresses the underlying public health concerns that are both about addiction and treatment.”
“It's gonna take all hands on deck to turn the tide,” North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said in an interview with Spectrum News on Tuesday before attending the White House meeting. “So we need local, state and federal government working together to make a difference.”
While prescription painkillers once drove the nation’s overdose epidemic, they were supplanted first by heroin and then, in recent years, by fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid. Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs.
The rate of overdose deaths from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, for instance, was 18 times higher in 2020 than in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths in the U.S. soared during the pandemic.
“There was a time where the young people of our country would go to a party and we, as parents, would be concerned about whether they were smoking weed or drinking alcohol underage,” Harris said on Tuesday. “Now what's happening at these parties is people are passing around pills.”
Gupta pointed to data from the CDC last week showing overdose deaths in the U.S. still rising but at a much slower rate than we saw in previous years.
About 110,000 people died from overdoses in 2022, according to the CDC. That’s about 2% more than the 107,622 U.S. overdose deaths in 2021, but nothing like the 30% increase seen in 2020, and 15% increase in 2021.
“We've made significant progress, if you look at the numbers in 2022 compared to 21, we’re flatlining the numbers,” Dr. Gupta said. “That's great because we saved about 19,000 lives that are still at the dinner table, celebrating birthdays.”
Harris at the beginning of the meeting on Tuesday said the group would discuss how to increase access to and the affordability of naloxone, which reverses overdoses, with the vice president calling it “the difference between life or death.”
In March of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved selling the leading version of naloxone, Narcan, without a prescription, setting it on course to become the first opioid treatment drug to be sold over the counter.
Gupta said it will be available later this summer.
“Just a few weeks ago, we convened a meeting with all FDA approved naloxone manufacturers right here at the White House, to ask them to make sure that there's accessibility and affordability for the American people,” he said, adding he views it as just as important and urgent as a fire extinguisher or defibrillator.
Harris on Tuesday also stressed the importance of “dealing with the criminal side and what we must do to dismantle transnational criminal organizations and disrupt their criminal enterprises.”
The vice president, a former California attorney general, said it often comes down to “following the money.”
“That means looking, for example, at the people who are financing these operations. That means looking, for example, at the brokers, because we are talking about highly sophisticated criminal enterprises,” Harris said. “And I can think of no one more equipped at the state level, and in our country, than state attorneys general to do this kind of work.”
Stein noted there are some aspects of the fentanyl issue that only the federal government can address.
“And that is to disrupt the supply chain of illicit fentanyl. We know it’s starting with chemicals produced in China, and then manufactured in Mexico and brought to this country,” he said. “So we have got to have the federal government dialed down and tie it down as tightly as we can to keep as few of these drugs [from] coming into our country.”
All eight of the attorneys general present on Tuesday were Democrats. Asked why no attorneys general from across the aisle were there, Gupta said the administration is “working across the aisle every single day with members of Congress and with states.”
“What we are trying to do today is get representation from east to west and north to south, but the conversation doesn't begin or end here,” he said. “This is a conversation that we will continue to have with both partners, and both sides.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.