The headline of the Feb. 7 Washington Post opinion was intended to be shocking: “The rising homicide rate in D.C. is nothing compared with what fentanyl is doing.” At face value, it is. Despite decades of gentrification, violence is rising in the nation’s capital; if opioid addiction is an even bigger crisis there, that really says something.
But also shocking is that the article’s author, WaPo columnist Petula Dvorak, an outspoken advocate for gun control, is acknowledging the cold, hard truth: The opioid epidemic is a more serious problem in America than gun violence.
Drugs from Mexico, China Are Killing Americans
In the fiscal year ending in 2021, some 100,000 Americans died due to drug overdose, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids accounted for roughly two-thirds of those overdoses.
Covid lockdowns led to a roughly 30 percent increase in drug deaths, driven by depression, financial hardship, drug use in isolation, less timely 911 calls, and less access to naloxone. This is in spite of years of heightened media attention, costly lawsuits against Big Pharma, and heightened U.S. government action.
Why is this happening? The answer has to do with two countries: Mexico and China. A federal report released in early February documents that Mexico is now the “dominant source” of the country’s fentanyl supply and synthetic opioids. While fentanyl is trafficked primarily across the U.S.-Mexico border, Mexican cartels are also increasingly using the U.S. Postal Service. About 90 percent of illicit drugs entering the United States are either produced or trafficked through Mexico.
Between 2014 and 2019, 70 to 80 percent of fentanyl seized by federal authorities came from China. The precursor chemicals used in Mexican labs still come predominantly from China. The recent federal report blames China for failing to maintain oversight and conduct investigations over the industry that creates these chemicals, and the Mexican government for its gross inability to disrupt the cartels, who exert tremendous influence over Mexican politics.
The Steep Cost of the Deadly Opioid Crisis
The costs of Mexico and China’s failure to curb opioids are staggering. A CDC study released at the end of last year found 932,364 people had died in the U.S. from fatal overdoses from 1999 through 2020. The number is now well over 1 million.
The number of children placed in foster care due to parental drug abuse has more than doubled since 2000. Nearly nine out of every 1,000 hospital births in the United States involve a newborn in opioid withdrawal, In West Virginia, the number is almost six times that: 53.5 out of every 1,000 hospital births.
The report estimated that “drug overdoses are now costing the United States approximately $1 trillion annually.” That includes excess health care spending, lost earnings from premature deaths, law enforcement and legal costs, government-funded assistance programs, and lost productivity due to the declining labor force. No surprise, these economic costs are felt hardest by those very same communities experiencing the highest death rates.
The Crisis Is Surging Alarmingly Fast
Those with a business background may rightly ask how it is profitable for Mexican cartels to produce and sell a product that is killing their customer base in such high numbers. The answer provokes even more dismay; because the market is growing so quickly, it makes up for dying customers.
“Fentanyl is even more ubiquitous across the United States. Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen fentanyl appear in many communities where it hadn’t been appearing previously,” Thomas Stopka, an associate professor with the department of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, told Time Magazine in December.
Opioid poisoning deaths have skyrocketed in recent years. The CDC reported three deaths per 100,000 people from opioid overdose in 2000; by 2010 that number was up 127 percent, to 6.8 deaths per 100,000. In 2020 that number had shot up to 21.4 deaths per 100,000, a 20-year increase of 613 percent.
By comparison, the number of deaths attributed to firearms has also increased since 2000, but by about 50 percent (there were about 30,000 deaths from firearms in 2000, and about 45,000 in 2020). Any observer would have to admit both of these are obviously problems, but the opioid epidemic is of far greater magnitude, and if current trends continue, far more acute.
Right and Left Can Address the Problem Together
It is for this reason that it was so refreshing — if still deeply troubling given the nature of the problem — to observe liberal columnist Dvorak call a spade a spade in two recent columns on opioid addiction. “In 2020, opioids claimed more than twice the 198 lives that gunfire did in the nation’s capital,” she observes.
We should be grateful that some liberals are recognizing that perhaps combatting the dramatic effects of the opioid crisis is more important than other activist causes. Our current overdose pandemic is far more deadly than omicron or whatever variant comes next.
In that lies part of the answer: We need to end various restrictions and measures that have provoked the kinds of social and economic dysphoria that contributed to the surge of addiction rates (and overdose deaths). More aggressive policing of our borders, empowering our counter-narcotics enforcement capabilities, and enforcing our current drug laws will also help.
Stephen Covey in his bestselling “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” famously said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The most dangerous domestic threat to Americans is our opioid crisis, which will only get worse if more dramatic steps at all levels of government are not taken. Covid and gun deaths pale in comparison. The very survival of our communities depends on our leaders recognizing that, and doing something about it.