America Once Ended an Opioid Crisis; We Can Do So Again

When he declared the current drug crisis a national health emergency, President Donald Trump said, “Nobody has seen anything like what’s going on now.” Driven primarily by an increase in opioid use, more Americans now die from drug overdoses than traffic accidents, falls or even breast cancer.

But while this current crisis may be the most widespread and deadly in American history, it is unfortunately far from the first.

In the early 1970s, while serving in the Birmingham Field Office, I served as a Federal Bureau of Investigation liaison with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency) and worked closely with those who fought on the front lines of the nation’s drug war. My work in that area continued when I was transferred to the Miami Field Office, where I worked on an Aircraft Hijacking, Crime on the High Seas and Fugitive Squad.

Drawing parallels to the heroin crisis of that era and looking to lessons that can be learned is important, but there are some key differences to keep in mind that make this current opioid crisis the worst our country has faced yet.

For starters, deaths left in the wake of this current drug epidemic are staggering when compared to previous waves of overdoses. While there were fewer than 3,000 overdose deaths in 1970, when the heroin epidemic was raging in our cities, there were over 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017 affecting communities all across the country.

Heroin was the drug of choice in the 1970s and may still be for many opioid addicts today, but illicit drug users must also contend with a newer and more potent drug that is in large part driving the spike of drug overdose deaths we are seeing now.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100 times more potent than heroin, is now a major part of the opioid crisis. The drug is flooding our nation’s streets and can be found in everything from heroin, which dealers lace with the drug in order to increase profits and provide a stronger high, to counterfeit pills that are made to look like legitimate prescriptions but are actually dangerous combinations of synthetic opioids.

About 2 milligrams, or about 4 salt-sized grains of fentanyl, can cause a fatal overdose. Given the potency — and small margin for error when cutting it with other drugs — it is little wonder why it is now the deadliest drug in the country.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that overdoses involving the synthetic opioid skyrocketed 113 percent over a three-year period. Responsible for 28.8 percent of overdose deaths in 2016, fentanyl overdoses that year killed more people than oxycodone, morphine and hydrocodone combined.

With the problem identified, attention should now shift toward taking down the suppliers who are putting this poison on our streets. In the 1970s, the BNDD dismantled the famous French connection, which was responsible for the vast majority of heroin in the United States. Today, the drugs pour in through our southern border.

A 2018 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration found that “Mexico remains the primary source of heroin available in the United States,” and fentanyl continues to pour over the southern border in ever-increasing quantities. Chinese laboratories, a major source of global fentanyl production, ship the deadly drug to Mexican cartels that then use existing trafficking routes to run fentanyl over the border and throughout the country and into our communities.

After watching Trump’s recent primetime address to the American public and the Democratic response, it is clear that although both parties have significant policy disagreements, there is one thing that they can both agree upon: The United States is in the midst of a drug epidemic, and more security is needed at the southern border to stem the flow of illegal drugs into our country.

Congress needs to play its role in confronting this epidemic. Increased border security is certainly a part of the equation, but it must also provide law enforcement officials with the tools they need to tackle this crisis and ensure they are not outmaneuvered by these sophisticated criminal enterprises.

History has shown that America once before was able to kick its opioid habit, and with the right resources, we will be able to do so again.

Charles King is a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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