The US has a drug crisis. This is not an overstatement. Understanding the international components of the fentanyl crisis are important to finding ways to confront it. But political fearmongering, often built around the word “cartel”, obscures solutions.
Fentanyl killed over 107,000 people in the US in just a year. A tiny bit can kill. It is mixed with other drugs or pressed into pills that look like prescription medications. It doesn’t just kill junkies or addicts. It can kill casual drug users, too. This is not what is typically thought of as a traditional overdose where someone takes a large quantity of drugs and dies. A person can take one pill and die. Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in the US for people between the ages of 18 and 49.
In February of this year the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing about fentanyl and US attempts to control its flow into the United States. The Committee’s jurisdiction is foreign affairs and it focused on China and Mexico.
US officials described the problem like this. China produces the precursor chemicals and ships them to Mexico. In Mexico, drug cartels process the chemicals into fentanyl and combine it with other drugs or press it into pills. Two Mexican cartels, Jalisco and Sinaloa, are the main source of fentanyl coming into the US. Officials said that 85 percent of fentanyl seized by US authorities is confiscated at official ports of entry. There are two ports of entry where most fentanyl is confiscated, one in California and one in Arizona.
This is important because defining the problem defines the solution. Lethal fentanyl can be transported in tiny quantities making it extremely difficult to detect. From this testimony we know that fentanyl is mostly coming through official border crossings in two states, not being brought by drug mules or undocumented migrants through the desert.
Other aspects of the hearing did less to clarify the problem. The word “cartel” was used 90 times (Steven Dudley from Insight Crime counted). Dudley’s conclusion was that the word “cartel” should be retired. It is thrown around so often that it has lost meaning and is not helpful in understanding or addressing the complex criminal organizations, drug distribution and financing systems that are involved in the fentanyl trade.
Understanding the problem is made even harder by how the fentanyl crisis is used politically. Leading Republicans like Governor DeSantis of Florida and Senator Cruz of Texas have decided that the US/Mexico border is President Biden’s Achilles heel, and they are exploiting this perceived vulnerability. They have coined the phrase “Biden’s border crisis”, lumping together the crisis of fentanyl deaths in the US with undocumented migration. During the hearing Senator Cruz, a former presidential candidate, used his time to define the root problem as what he called Biden’s “opening” of the border.
Again, how you define the problem defines the solution. By this definition, an “open” border – to be clear the border is not open – is at the heart of fentanyl deaths. Defined this way, the solution is to defeat President Biden and his border policies. This classic political demagoguery does nothing to direct solutions toward the fentanyl crisis.
Amid the politicking at the Senate hearing, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the head of the US Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a man who clearly understands the drug problem in the United States, reflected quietly that this problem doesn’t begin or end at the border.
No question, there is a crisis of fentanyl deaths in the United States. That is why it is critical that we use language and define the problem in ways that lead to effective, not political solutions.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson