The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has declared August 21 National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day. Given how extraordinarily dangerous this drug is, that designation might make sense. But the Biden administration’s inexcusably lax policies toward fentanyl prove this is little more than a PR stunt.
Illicit fentanyl isn’t yet up there with smallpox, Joseph Stalin, or Mao Zedong as the world’s greatest killers, but in time, it might join their ranks. Classified as a controlled substance under federal law, fentanyl has legitimate uses as a surgical anesthetic and end-stage-cancer painkiller. But it’s better known as the crest of Wave Three of the current opioid epidemic haunting the nation. (Prescription painkillers and heroin were Waves One and Two.)
Unlike heroin, fentanyl is created in a lab from lawfully available and relatively inexpensive precursor chemicals and is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Some fentanyl analogues are stronger still. Carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, is 10,000 times as powerful as morphine; a few grains can be fatal. Only a minuscule amount of fentanyl is necessary for it to have its intended effect. A skosh more, and it turns deadly.
Fentanyl also kills almost immediately. As Illinois’s Madison County coroner Stephen Nonn put it, “When we go to a death scene and you still see the needle in the arm, we know it was fentanyl because it works that quick.” Like heroin or cocaine, fentanyl can be produced as a white powder, which allows dealers to cut heroin or cocaine with fentanyl to give it an added “kick.”
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Fentanyl can also wind up in heroin or cocaine if dealers package the three drugs on the same table. Finally, the cartels also manufacture counterfeit pharmaceutical pills that are laced with (or made entirely from) fentanyl, because most drug users prefer swallowing pills to taking injections.
The result is that no one knows how much fentanyl is in a bag of heroin or cocaine powder or in counterfeit pills. The risks of drug use, already inadvisable behavior (to say the least), have now skyrocketed. As Ben Westhoff, author of Fentanyl, Inc., has written, “Any black market pill or powder could contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.”
Historically, China was the source of most illicitly produced fentanyl. Today, however, China’s chemical industry manufactures fentanyl’s precursor chemicals and ships them to Mexico, where the drug cartels produce the finished product. Once produced, fentanyl is smuggled across the southwest border.
That is relatively easy to do for two reasons. First, given fentanyl’s far greater potency than heroin, only minute amounts are necessary to produce its “kick,” making fentanyl much easier to hide than heroin. Second, the Biden administration has used a matador approach at the border: Rather than vigorously enforce the nation’s immigration laws, this administration waves through people who seek to cross the border illegally, even relocating them within the nation’s interior.
The Biden administration is not taking the increasing number of fentanyl-caused deaths seriously enough. To do so, it should make an aggressive effort to stop the smuggling of fentanyl from Mexico into the United States. Yes, education, awareness, and treatment should be used, too. But interdiction and enforcement are key.
The Biden administration prides itself on taking a “whole of government” approach to problems that affect members of its favored groups, such as the transgender community. Why not do that regarding a problem that affects millions of Americans?
The mission of the DEA is to enforce the nation’s drug laws. The mission of the U.S. Border Patrol is to stop illegal immigration. Neither one was created to sit back and watch Mexican drug cartels bring lethal drugs into this country.
Think about the administration’s hypocrisy for a minute. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it ordered property owners to halt the eviction of nonpaying tenants and ordered most of the nation’s workers to be vaccinated—even though Congress had not authorized the administration to take either step. Why? The president said he needed to save lives. By contrast, Congress has enacted immigration and drug laws that do help stem fentanyl smuggling—yet the administration has refused to enforce them, even though it knows that its nullification of those laws puts thousands of American lives, if not more, at risk.
At the end of the day, National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day is a PR stunt. It does nothing other than tell the public what people already know: Fentanyl is the black mamba of illicit drugs. Its fangs contain a quick-acting, extremely aggressive, highly potent, merciless, and remorseless venom.
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What the administration should do is to increase our interdiction and enforcement efforts by using the DEA and Border Patrol to enforce the immigration and drug laws. Aggressively enforcing those laws against anyone involved in the illicit manufacturing, smuggling, distribution, and possession of illegal drugs such as fentanyl is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
We deserve to know how many Americans must die before the administration closes the border to the cartels’ fentanyl smuggling. What is the “magic number”? One million deaths? Two million? Even more?
Hardly any journalists will ask President Biden those questions. But they should. And answers aren’t enough—we deserve action. Americans should demand that he enforce the law to stop the scourge of illicit fentanyl. Lives are at stake.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review