When it comes to opioids, we don’t have the luxury of battling it on the homefront alone. We need other countries to help us end this crisis.
And deaths specifically from opioids trafficked from overseas more than doubled from 2015 to 2016. Experts predict that nearly 500,000 Americans could lose their lives to opioids over the next decade.
Bailey Henke, at just 18 years old, became one of the faces behind these terrible statistics when he died of a fentanyl overdose at his home in Grand Forks, North Dakota. His tragic story — highlighted by the U.S. Treasury Department — underscores the fact that most opioids are produced overseas and trafficked to our shores. In this case, the drugs weren’t smuggled across the southern border, but instead they were shipped from China — and it was U.S. and Chinese authorities who built the case for sanctions against the trafficker and four associates.
This is not an isolated incident: Most fentanyl in America comes from China. While domestic response to the opioid crisis must continue to be our priority, we should also invest in diplomatic and international programs, so they can do their part in helping combat the production and trafficking of deadly synthetic opioids. Fortunately, the State Department is already responding to this horrific public health emergency with partners in China, Mexico and around the world. But it’s all hands on deck, and that means it’s time to step up our international tool kit.
Curb fentanyl production overseas
It starts with reducing the production of fentanyl, which can make a huge difference and save countless lives. U.S. diplomacy has been a key factor, focused on assisting the Chinese to improve and enforce their laws. The Chinese were initially slow to ban production of new drugs that mimic fentanyl’s effect. As a result, large quantities are manufactured there at low cost and sold abroad.
U.S. diplomatic pressure is helping change that by getting China to ban production of four of these fentanyl-like drugs in 2017. China’s new laws are enabling our governments to carry out joint investigations and go after Chinese producers and distributors.
To prevent other countries from producing fentanyl as China cracks down, the United States is pressuring multilateral bodies to tighten global regulations, including getting the United Nations Commission on Narcotics Drugs to strictly regulate fentanyl’s key ingredients worldwide.
With additional engagement, America can help enforce these new global regulations and make it harder for new fentanyl-like drugs to evade existing laws. In a step in the right direction, the United States recently secured a unanimous vote at the U.N. to put tighter controls on carfentanil, making it harder to illicitly sell a synthetic opioid that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine.
As America works to curb production overseas, we must also crack down on the transportation routes for fentanyl. This means applying additional U.S. diplomatic pressure to help secure international mail and stop trafficking through postal packages.
In spite of the danger, postal services around the world are bound by international agreements to deliver each other’s packages within their countries, even without knowing the contents of those packages in advance. With advanced electronic data and analytics of packages, officials can identify suspicious patterns and better target their searches. Currently, we receive these data for 40 to 50 percent of packagesentering our country — it is simply not enough.
The House has passed legislation to mandate that electronic data be provided in advance on all packages — an effort championed by leaders such as Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul — and Sens. Rob Portman, Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch are shepherding this legislation through the Senate. But since partner countries must provide the data, congressional action must be backed up by sustained engagement from the State Department to ensure that countries cooperate.
To address smuggling from Mexico, the State Department has partnered with Mexican law enforcement through the Merida Initiative, providing training to help Mexican police and courts fight organized crime and corruption. One recent success was the seizure of thousands of fentanyl pills hidden in coffee and shoes, through the use of canines trained to detect fentanyl.
We need to boost our international focus
Given the scope of the opioid epidemic, the reality is that our nation must invest in a range of programs — and that includes upping our international focus. As CIA director, Mike Pompeo called for America to deploy “every tool” to combat the crisis.
More recently in his Senate testimony, now-Secretary of State Pompeo called fentanyl produced overseas a “truly grave threat.” In his trip to Mexico this month, the secretary raised the trafficking of opioids with the Mexican foreign secretary.
Congress and Pompeo must continue to work together to ensure that we not only have a comprehensive strategy to deploy our international programs to combat the opioid crisis, but that we also fully fund our front-line diplomats and key agencies, such as the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which received a 3 percent budget increase this year.
It can sometimes be hard to connect how our diplomats and international programs impact our everyday lives. But the heart-wrenching truth is that there is nothing “foreign” about what happened to Bailey Henke and his community in North Dakota, or to the hundreds of thousands of families across our nation who know the scourge of opioid addiction all too well.
When it comes to combating the opioid epidemic, we simply don’t have the luxury of battling this crisis on the homefront alone.
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