Since the beginning of the fiscal year 2021, the opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, has been pumped into the United States at record rates. Mass immigration has worsened the problem as it gives smugglers the opportunity to transport opioids across the border in larger quantities. Fentanyl seizures across the U.S. southern border have seen a massive spike.
To date, over 5,500 pounds of fentanyl have been confiscated by personnel from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Comparatively, in 2020, only 4,700 pounds of opioids were seized. Kyle Williamson, El Paso DEA Special Agent-in-Charge, pointed out that fentanyl is manufactured discreetly in Mexico, using chemicals that come from China. Misha Piastro, San Diego DEA Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge, noted that the devastation caused by these opioids on the streets of America is “significant.”
To counter the massive influx of fentanyl, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced the launch of Project Wave Breaker in late April. “While a major entry point for fentanyl is the Southwest border, the cartels are spreading their poison into communities across the Nation… Through this initiative, we’re tackling a very real public health, public safety, and national security threat, identifying the most egregious street-level networks in our communities and working our way up through the supply chain,” DEA Acting Administrator D. Christopher Evans said in a statement.
Project Wave Breaker aims to disrupt the flow of fentanyl by directing “interdiction, enforcement, and outreach efforts.” The project will also deploy AI assets to target illicit activities of Mexican cartels. In total, 11 DEA divisions will participate in the initiative. Together, they are credited with 85 percent of all seizures of synthetic opioids by the department last year.
The 11 divisions include El Paso, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New England, St. Louis, Chicago, San Diego, Detroit, New York, and Phoenix. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 87,203 people died from drug overdoses during a 12-month period ending Sept. 2020. This is the highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded.
DEA’s Drug Threat Assessment report released in 2020 had accused fentanyl of being “primarily responsible” for driving the country’s opioid crisis. Most divisions of the department had reported seeing a high supply of the drug in American markets. “Fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills continue to be trafficked across the country and remain significant contributors to the rates of overdose deaths observed across the country. As inexpensive, potent fentanyl continues to push into established heroin markets, fentanyl will augment, and in some cases supplant, white powder heroin in various domestic markets,” according to the report.
To combat the spread of fentanyl in the country, President Joe Biden recently signed legislation that extends a ban imposed on substances similar to fentanyl in October. The ban will keep fentanyl analogues classified as schedule 1 drugs, thus subjecting it to controls as strict as heroin. Some Republicans have called on the administration to make permanent the ban on fentanyl analogues, a move that is strongly opposed by several civil rights groups.
Over 100 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, had recently signed a letter asking lawmakers to let the classification of fentanyl analogues as schedule 1 drugs expire citing racial reasons. “There is ample evidence that these unscientific policies destroy communities, entrench racial disparities, and do nothing to reduce drug supply or demand… Lawmakers should instead support legislation grounded in public health and evidence-based approaches to illicit fentanyl-related overdose deaths. We must learn from the lessons of the past,” stated the letter.
In late April, the Biden administration released new federal guidelines, allowing more medical practitioners to prescribe a drug called buprenorphine that has been identified to minimize opioid overdose deaths and relapses. This will make buprenorphine more widely available; aiding in the fight against the opioid crisis. Buprenorphine works by reducing an addict’s withdrawal symptoms and cravings, making it easier for them to avoid relapses.
“There’s a lack of physicians in a lot of rural areas around the country… By expanding [buprenorphine guidelines to include] these additional practitioners, we’re more likely to be able to expand access to treatment into those rural areas,” Tom Coderre, acting head of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, said to NPR.