The latest data on the opioid crisis shows how the COVID-19 pandemic reversed the progress America was making in decreasing drug overdose deaths.
More than 90,000 Americans died of overdoses between September 2019 and September 2020. Last year, drug overdose deaths rose by more than 27 percent in New York and more than 24 percent in Ohio. Based on current trends, we expect 2021 to be as bad, if not worse.
This heartbreaking surge comes after nationwide drug overdose deaths declined in 2018, for the first time since 1990, and we continued to make progress in 2019. Now, at local events like a Drug Take Back Day in Xenia, Ohio, and at a new addiction treatment service location in Syracuse, N.Y., our constituents tell us drug overdoses are getting worse every day.
The main driver of this surge in overdose deaths are synthetic opioids, and in particular, fentanyl. Fentanyl is cheap to manufacture and 50 times deadlier than heroin — only 2 mg is enough to kill someone. In 2019, there were 70,630 overdose deaths and more than half of those, 36,359, involved fentanyl, sometimes mixed with other drugs, like cocaine, crystal meth or heroin. That’s why keeping fentanyl out of our communities is a matter of life or death.
In years past, most of the fentanyl flooding our streets was coming into our country, shockingly, from China through the mail. A bipartisan report from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that while federal law required private mail carriers to screen packages entering the U.S. to allow law enforcement to identify and stop suspicious packages and prosecute the traffickers, the U.S. Postal Service was exempt. Thus, smugglers were able to mail fentanyl right to people’s doorsteps.
In response, we passed the bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention, or STOP, Act to close this loophole. It worked, but now we are learning that drug traffickers are shipping fentanyl through our southern border with Mexico. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, “Mexican cartels are increasingly responsible for producing and supplying fentanyl to the U.S. market.” These cartels get chemical ingredients, primarily from China, to produce deadly fentanyl in Mexico to then ship it into our communities.
Recent data by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows a massive increase in seizures of fentanyl at the border. CBP has seized more than 600 pounds of deadly fentanyl every month for the last 12 months — a record. In the last six months alone, it has seized 5,400 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill 1.2 billion people or the entire population of the United States more than three times over. This six-month total is more than all of last year, and CBP believes the vast majority of drugs are getting in without being stopped.
The reason for this is clear — the Biden administration’s radical policy changes have encouraged the drug cartels to smuggle more unlawful migrants and lethal, illicit substances across our southern border. The Biden administration systematically dismantled the existing border security framework put in place by the Trump administration, including revoking the COVID-19 emergency declaration for the border, stopping construction of the border fence, suspending the Remain in Mexico policy, canceling Asylum Cooperative Agreements and severely reducing immigration enforcement within the United States. Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had the fewest deportations in its nearly two decades of existence.
Without deterrence policies, traffickers see a green light to send more drugs and people to the southern border. They use vulnerable individuals, particularly families and unaccompanied children who require significant processing time, as a way to distract Border Patrol agents to allow them to then move large quantities of fentanyl into the United States. This all leads to increased supply of deadly fentanyl, which means more drugs in our communities at lower prices.
The most immediate way to curb this fentanyl flow is to stop the surge at the border and give our overworked law enforcement officers the resources to crack down on drug smugglers. To that end, here are four steps the Biden administration should take to address this crisis.
First, it must provide the resources our Border Patrol needs to hire more agents, acquire more technology and aid its mission by finalizing the construction of the already funded border wall.
Second, the Biden administration must allow migrants to apply for asylum closer to home in the first safe country they enter.
Third, it must implement asylum adjudication at the border and stop releasing tens of thousands of unlawful migrants into the United States.
Fourth, it must implement an agile response plan to respond to unlawful immigration surges. Our bipartisan legislation, the Border Response & Resilience Act, would require this and would allow the Department of Homeland Security to access contingency funding to respond to border surges.
This would reduce the flow of unlawful migrants and give our law enforcement agents at the border greater capability to apprehend drug traffickers.
Criminal manufacturers and drug cartels in China and Mexico are not slowing down in their efforts to bring fentanyl and other deadly synthetic opioids into the United States. We cannot slow down in our efforts to stop them either.
We are calling on the Biden administration to stop this surge of deadly synthetic opioids and start saving American lives.
Sen. Rob Portman is a Republican representing the state of Ohio. He is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and also serves on the Finance and Foreign Relations committees.
Rep. John Katko is a Republican representing New York’s 24th District. He is the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee and also serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.