We all know about opioid addiction and the tragic consequences it has caused for hundreds of thousands of people and their families. In addition to costing lives and destroying families, the opioid epidemic costs taxpayers through increased law enforcement spending, increased healthcare spending, and lost tax revenue.
These costs are of serious concerns to me as State Auditor. One study recently published in the journal Medical Care estimated the cost of the opioid epidemic to be $11.8 billion for all U.S. states. The human costs are a concern to me as a Mississippian, husband, and father.
Abuse of prescription opioids have long been blamed for causing an overdose crisis, but today the data show that opioids are not the only culprit. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently published results indicating that deaths from fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) alone increased 520 percent from 2013 to 2016, and overdoses from prescription drugs remained flat for the first time in recent years. This is a telling sign that users are turning from a combination of opioids to pure synthetic opioids — the most-deadly kind.
While changes in policy and private sector self-policing have led to declines in prescription drug diversion, drug cartels are still able to flood the market with fentanyl. This illegal, deadly drug is 50 times more potent than heroin yet much easier to obtain. To put the level of potency into perspective, the Justice Department has considered using fentanyl in the executions for death row inmates.
Large amounts of fentanyl are trafficked into the U.S. by criminal drug smugglers, primarily from China and Mexico. In order to create an effective prevention plan, the focus must be on ending the ever-growing flow of these dangerous drugs into the U.S.
China denies that they are a major contributor to America’s opioid crisis, yet five of the six online fentanyl vendors investigated in a U.S. Senate report were based in China. It’s a common practice for China to send large components of this deadly drug to Mexico where drug traffickers smuggle the powder across the U.S. border for distribution. More must be done to target those responsible for trafficking this fentanyl in order to safeguard the American people.
President Trump has made stopping the opioid epidemic a top priority for his administration. He’s taken the lead in proposing real solutions in response to the widespread deaths related to opioid abuse and overdoses. By declaring the problem a public health emergency, securing $6 billion in new funding to combat the challenge, and working to pass the single largest legislative package addressing a drug crisis in history, a lot of work is being done on this pressing issue. This kind of action is what is needed to help bring our nation out of this deadly epidemic, but more needs to be done to stop this lethal substance from ever entering the stream of commerce.
Many people have become inadvertently addicted to opioids as a result of what started as legitimate use for an injury or surgery. We need compassionate solutions and treatment to help break the addiction. Health care providers must take a more active role in helping stop this problem.
Solving the problem also begins with securing our U.S. borders, but that alone is not enough. A favorite outlet of drug traffickers is through the U.S. mail. Unfortunately, small amounts of fentanyl pack a hefty punch, and detecting small amounts can be difficult. We need more funding for our intelligence agencies, border patrol agents, and law enforcement personnel to ensure they are properly educated on the handling of synthetic drugs and have the resources needed to detect the smallest level of fentanyl. If they do not receive proper training, being exposed to even small amounts of fentanyl can jeopardize our law enforcement officers’ lives.
In addition to cracking down on these lethal imports, I urge lawmakers at every level of government to work in a bipartisan fashion to find ways to expand medical treatment to address the root problem: stopping the need for synthetic drugs.
SHAD WHITE is the 42nd State Auditor of Mississippi.