America is Not Destined to Lose the Fight Against Drugs
But we need to drop the learned helplessness and support more sustained efforts to deal with cartel crime, foreign corruption, and human weakness.
In 2022, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) seized an astounding 379 million potentially deadly doses of fentanyl in either fake-pill or powder form, along with another 131,000 pounds of methamphetamine, 4300 pounds of heroin, and more than 440,000 pounds of cocaine. These drugs amount to a weapon of mass destruction aimed squarely at America's overwhelmed communities and many of our most vulnerable fellow citizens facing addiction.
Stopping these attacks on our people remains a top national priority.
Despite the valiant efforts of federal and state law enforcement agencies to reduce the supply of drugs, these deadly substances remain a scourge in too many American communities. Fentanyl alone is estimated to have killed around 70,000 Americans in 2022. In the prior year, fentanyl killed more Americans ages 18 to 45 than did other factors such as Covid-19, car accidents, cancer, or suicide according to the public awareness group Families Against Fentanyl. As the DEA states: “Fentanyl is the deadliest drug threat facing this country. It is a highly addictive man-made opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin. Just two milligrams of fentanyl, the small amount that fits on the tip of a pencil, is considered a potentially deadly dose.”
Most of the fentanyl and meth coming into the U.S. is now manufactured and distributed by two Mexican drug operations, the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels, often using Chinese chemical components. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the cartels’ rivalry is focused not merely on feeding the bottomless appetite of American drug users for cheap and powerful substances, but also to create an entire new wave of consumer demand:
Mexican cartels were primed to take advantage. They already had established trafficking networks built around drugs like cocaine, marijuana and heroin, said Uttam Dhillon, who served as acting DEA administrator under Mr. Trump. And they had relationships with Chinese chemical makers, and expertise running drugmaking labs, through their production of methamphetamine, another synthetic drug they are sending to the U.S., Mr. Dhillon said.
The drug often arrives in the form of fake tablets made to look like prescription drugs, including pain pills, law-enforcement authorities said. The DEA believes these dupes—often stamped to look like real 30 milligram oxycodone pills—are aimed at driving prescription drug users toward an illicit, cartel-made product.
The DEA said the cartels are pushing their synthetic wares into more parts of the U.S. Methamphetamine is more present in some eastern states where that drug was once rare. And fentanyl is growing in the West. Its potency and the lack of quality control in the black market make it easy to cause overdoses—including when users don’t know that fentanyl is laced into or simply sold as other drugs.
The cartels “don’t just fill a void, they create a market,” Mr. Dhillon said.
The pills are so ubiquitous that they have been falling in price, creating pressure on the cartels to roll out new products, according to a 27-year-old fentanyl producer who runs a clandestine lab in Culiacán. He said he and a partner are experimenting with a new version meant to be 30% more potent than the typical fake oxycodone tablets, known as M30s.
The new pills, colored pink, yellow and green, have the shape of a skull, an iconic Mexican folkloric image, and don’t try to mimic real medication. They are also made with butter flavoring so that, when melted on foil with a flame, the pills leave a golden trail and smell like caramel popcorn, telltale signs of quality, said the producer.
He said he has made as many as one million pills in a week. Another worker in his lab had to periodically stop one of their machines—a $4,000, Chinese-made pill press—to clear jams as it ran on a recent, humid day.
“The M30 is not working very well. Everybody is making them,” the producer said. The new pill, he said, “will generate a lot of demand.”
Drug enforcement officials know where the poison originates and how it is distributed in the United States. The DEA and other agencies collectively swept up 600 Jalisco cartel members in 2020 and took down another 60 members of the Sinaloa cartel’s methamphetamine operation in 2021. But these important law enforcement efforts are never enough. The drugs keep coming from the cartel superlabs. And all the talk about moving away from enforcement to drug treatment seems to only work on the margins. Demand for high-powered synthetic opioids and other potent drugs is increasing not decreasing while treatment efforts are woefully inadequate given the depth of addiction problems.
Many cities are now refusing to enforce drug laws while also neglecting to fully fund and staff treatment options thus producing a steady wave of broken and homeless drug addicts on the streets and in public spaces from parks to subways. Sadly, we’ve reached a point where more and more people are throwing up their hands and saying the war on drugs is a failure, we’ve lost, and people must accept our drug-induced decline.
This apathy on drug control is disastrous for our country and people.
On the positive side, the Biden administration’s National Drug Control Strategy from April 2022 correctly identifies the primary problems facing America’s fight against drugs as twofold: doing more to shut down cartel drug trafficking and doing more to address untreated addiction. This is mostly sound logic. As usual, however, the rub comes in the thorny implementation details.
How exactly will the U.S. government both work with and put pressure on the Mexican government to shut down cartel superlabs and address corruption in state and national institutions that allows them to operate unimpeded?
How exactly will the cross-border trade of drugs, guns, and money be stopped by U.S. government agencies?
How do we identify and halt the entry of fentanyl and meth through U.S. ports of entry without a disruptive effort to slow down commerce and trade?
What can drug treatment programs reasonably produce in terms of declining addiction rates?
What should cities and towns do in the meantime, often with limited funds, to get drugs off the streets and addicts into proven treatment programs?
How do we go after drug traffickers and disrupt the trade without putting lots of low-level people in jail and creating even more problems for families and communities?
How do we stop vulnerable Americans, particularly young people, from getting involved with serious drugs in the first place given lots of dysfunctional social and family environments?
Complicating matters, the failure of the national government to control the flow of drugs into the United States—under administrations from both political parties—has understandably led governors and state legislatures to step in with their own solutions. For example, Florida last year passed stringent new punishments and sentencing measures on fentanyl trafficking and enhanced criminal liabilities for dealers when people die from their drugs.
Activist groups may not like these policies, but state citizens certainly appreciate the steps to put fentanyl dealers who kill people in jail. Expect other states to follow suit.
The unintended consequence, of course, is creating a patchwork of drug enforcement laws with some states and localities refusing to confront drug use and attendant problems on the streets and others taking a hardline “enforcement only” approach. This undermines the whole effort and just pushes the drug trafficking and drug use into new places. Every state needs to be strong in the fight against drugs if we are to beat the criminal operations fueling the fentanyl trade.
To combat a problem that crosses international and state borders, America will need to be serious on all fronts: working with Mexico to take out cartel operations and clear out the corrupt government officials who shield them; stopping the flow of drugs across the southern border with more rigorous monitoring and interventions at key border posts; putting the worst drug traffickers in jail for lengthy sentences; and offering more victims of the cartels a real second chance to get over their addictions and get back to normal life.
None of this will be easy but American leaders and citizens must overcome their learned helplessness on drugs and get serious about protecting our communities and people.
If not, public safety and the quality of life in our cities and towns will decline further while more families across the country will face the devastating loss of loved ones dying from these substances or wrecking their lives in other ways.