America is being poisoned.
That poison is taking hundreds of lives a day, one pill or one injection at a time. The poison is fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid produced by the Mexican cartels, trafficked across the border and then spread throughout the country, including West Virginia.
The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports 107,622 drug overdose deaths in 2021, an increase of 15 percent from the previous year. Three-fourths of those deaths were from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl).
West Virginia reported 1,485 overdose deaths last year. The encouraging news is that number is down nearly four percent from the year before, but it still means four West Virginians are dying every day from an overdose
The fentanyl problem is so severe, it is even cutting into Americans’ life expectancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports average life expectancy fell by almost one year, to 76.1 years, in 2021. The pandemic was the primary reason, but 16 percent of the decline was attributable to unintentional causes and half of those were drug overdoses.
Most of the drugs come across the U.S.-Mexican border through ports-of-entry, particularly California. “A decade ago, we didn’t even know about fentanyl, and now it’s a national crisis,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. “The amount of fentanyl we are seizing at the border is staggering.”
Agents seized over 5,000 pounds just in San Diego and Imperial Counties during a recent nine-month period. Since last October, nearly 13,000 pounds of fentanyl have been rounded up across the country.
West Virginia authorities have seized several large amounts. One investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of West Virginia led to the confiscation of 47 pounds. A recent bust by Morgantown police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia was significant for its quality.
“The Fentanyl that was seized in pill form was some of the best quality of pills we have seen,” said U.S. Attorney Bill Ihlenfeld. They were also colored and stamped to look like more common prescription pills.
Ihlenfeld issued the dire warning that if someone is buying a drug on the street, they should assume it has fentanyl in it. It is cheaper for the cartels to make, and it produces a more powerful high that addicts who have built up a tolerance are looking for.
Law enforcement, public health officials and community leaders are trying to raise awareness about the risks. Azeem Khan, Co-Chair of the Mountaineer Fentanyl Education Task Force, said, “Experimenting with drugs right now isn’t like it was five or ten years ago because that risk right now is death, and that risk is higher than ever before because of the fentanyl being pressed into these pills.”
Public awareness about the risks is essential, but there is no easy solution. There are 150,000 northbound travelers into southern California every day, and cartels are constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the inspections.
Some lawmakers want stiffer penalties for the drug dealers. Several Republican Representatives have introduced bills calling for life in prison or even the death penalty for trafficking, selling or distributing fentanyl.
Then there is the demand side, but that is also complicated. Addiction is real, and fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Most people with substance abuse disorder didn’t start out to compulsively seek a high, but the addiction takes over and the withdrawal symptoms are brutal.
It is all too common to label a problem as a “crisis,” and generations have grown up in this country aware of the drug problem. But this feels different than the others. Fentanyl pills are relatively easy to make and transport and marketed as prescription-grade meds.
People are dying because they are already addicted and the dose of fentanyl was more than they could tolerate, and people are also dying because they did not know what they were taking, and they ended up unconscious and stopped breathing.
It is often said in recovery, “We don’t choose to be addicted; what we choose to do is deny our pain.” That is true for the person with addiction, but it also has broader implications for a nation that must acknowledge and address the pain fentanyl is causing.