While I will always think of Arizona as a special place, its unfortunate struggle with the opioid epidemic is not unique. In 2017, the U.S. experienced a record-breaking 72,300 deaths caused by opioid overdoses — 2,504 of those occurred within our state borders.
The majority of those deaths were from drugs obtained illegally, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Due to federal and state policy interventions, overdose deaths from prescription opioids alone has declined significantly. In its place, drug cartels have found a business opportunity — illegally importing and distributing synthetic opioids laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has near-immediate effects and is more potent than morphine and many types of heroin.
“People think they’re taking a legitimate pill and they’re taking fentanyl, which is so strong, it’s going to kill you,” Arizona DEA spokeswoman Erica Curry told a local news station earlier this year.
It is time to focus on these illicit drugs physically crossing our borders through drug cartels and international mail. Five of six online fentanyl vendors investigated in a Senate report were found to be based in China. Those five were found to have sent hundreds of packages to at least 300 sources in the U.S. via the Postal Service. China regularly sends components of fentanyl to Mexico, where drug cartels make it into powder to be smuggled into the U.S. and distributed.
The illicit drugs are spread far and wide, including Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, where the opioid death rate has been high for years. In 2017, overdose deaths increased by more than 17 percent in each state. In New Jersey, they rose 27 percent.
Fentanyl is so dangerous that even the smallest amount — 2 milligrams, or about 4 grains of salt — can be deadly. Because fentanyl is easier to obtain and distribute than heroin, and because it is much more potent than other opioids, it can pose a threat to anyone who comes into contact with even trace amounts.
Fentanyl needs to be stopped at the source, long before it lands in rural communities . China is the largest source of illegal fentanyl for American buyers. These buyers are increasingly paying with digital currencies to minimize the possibility of the drugs being seized. While in the first five months of 2018, customs officers and border agents seized 1,060 pounds of fentanyl, other shipments could have slipped through due to a lack of technology and personnel.
Officials at Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations now use hand-held sensors and canine units to detect trace amounts of fentanyl. These efforts, along with intelligence and technological advancements used by the National Targeting Center and Homeland Security Investigations, have led to open investigations into suspected opioid smugglers who have landed drugs on American soil.
Earlier this year, CBP officers intercepted six packages containing 4-ANPP, which can be synthesized into fentanyl doses. One pound of 4-ANPP can create 45,000 fentanyl doses. The packages were to be delivered to an apartment in Nogales, Arizona.
Finding a solution to this complex problem will not be simple. It starts with cracking down on border security and improving screening of incoming international mail. Our communities must rally together to remind U.S. lawmakers of just how important it is that they pass legislation demanding cooperation from China to reexamine shipping policies and deliver justice to Mexican drug cartels.
Enforcing preventive measures and demanding aggressive action against the importation of fentanyl are the only ways to move the dial away from more tragic, senseless loss. All communities, including rural areas such as Bisbee and Douglas, deserve to be free from the threat of illicit fentanyl and given the opportunity to thrive in a safe, protected nation.