By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Americans have long known that the U.S. has a drug problem. From marijuana in the 60’s and cocaine in the 80’s to Ecstasy in the 90’s and our current heroin crisis, demand has not waned and associated crime and violence continues worldwide. News reports about skyrocketing overdose deaths have become routine in small Midwest towns, but at the national level, there is little awareness of the epic proportions American drug use has reached.
In a June 6 statement, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said, “People are dying of drug overdoses in record numbers. We are not talking about a slight increase. There is a horrifying surge in drug overdoses.” Specifically, in 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses and more than 33,000 people died from using heroin, fentanyl, and other opioid drugs. However, the most sobering fact in Rosenstein’s remarks was that for Americans under the age of 50, a drug overdose is now the leading cause of death.
Drug Overdose Deaths: 500 Percent Increase
Rosenstein explained that while drug overdose deaths increased between 1968 and 1990, that increase was proportional to population growth in the U.S. However, in the following quarter-century, drug overdose deaths increased by 500 percent. Two things happened in the 1990s that likely contributed to this explosion: the power of drug cartels in Mexico began to expand unchecked under a corrupt government, and in 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced the highly potent opioid drug OxyContin onto the market. This time-released version of oxycodone—or rather the addiction to it—formed the epicenter of America’s greatest drug crisis.
While Hollywood movies and TV shows would have us believe that junkies and drug rings flourish mostly in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Miami, our current opioid epidemic began in small blue-collar towns in Ohio. Doctors began prescribing—and soon over-prescribing—oxycodone for minor aches and pains, and a new class of addicts was born. Shady medical practices called “pill mills” would supply “patients” with OxyContin for cash paid under the table. Then teenagers started stealing their parents’ oxycodone pills, needing bigger doses to achieve the same high and eventually crushing the pills to snort the powder.
[Also by Sylvia: US Court Case Against El Chapo Guzmán Expected to Be ‘Major Undertaking’]
As this situation was evolving, criminal groups looked on just waiting for the right opportunity to intervene. The Mexican cartels came first with a new brand of heroin called black tar because of its color and stickiness. It was a marked improvement over their previous brown powder formulation that could never beat the quality of white power heroin from Afghanistan. But the Mexican black tar variety was genius; it didn’t have to be injected, it was ten times more powerful (on average) than powdered heroin on the street, and it could be sold more cheaply in higher quantities.
It didn’t take long for mostly white middle-class teenagers in the Midwest and Northeast U.S. to get hooked. Black tar heroin was messy, but didn’t leave telltale track marks from unsavory needles since it could be smoked. More importantly, it was more powerful than oxycodone and cheaper than OxyContin pills on the street. The overdose death rates in these regions spiked, and parts of America that were never really interested in heroin addiction soon couldn’t get away from it—because it was now affecting their children. But as the drug market likes to do, it came up with something even more addictive and dangerous than heroin.
Fentanyl: More Addictive than Heroin
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, and is something of a parent to heroin and morphine. Prescription-grade fentanyl can be 100 times more toxic than morphine, and 30 to 50 times more deadly than heroin. According to The Globe and Mail, “Chemical companies in China custom-design variants of pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl by tweaking a molecule ever so slightly. A few hundred micrograms—the weight of a single grain of salt—are enough to trigger heroin-like bliss. But the line between euphoria and fatal overdose is frighteningly thin: An amount the size of two grains of salt can kill a healthy adult.” And now that same fentanyl is on U.S. streets.
Fentanyl isn’t just posing a danger to users. Rosenstein explained that fentanyl exposure can injure or kill innocent law enforcement officers and other first responders. “Just a few weeks ago, a police officer in East Liverpool, Ohio nearly died from exposure to an extremely potent opioid, most likely a fentanyl-related compound,” he said. “The officer had pulled over a car and noticed an unidentified white powder in the vehicle. The officer took precautions by putting on gloves and a mask for personal protection. When the officer returned to the police station, another officer pointed out that he had powder on his shirt. Instinctively, he brushed off the powder while not wearing gloves. About an hour later, he collapsed. That officer had to be treated with four doses of naloxone.”
Tragically, the current opioid epidemic in the U.S. seems unstoppable. Criminal groups in Mexico, Asia, and Canada are bringing heroin and fentanyl-laced drugs across our borders, law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep them out of their communities, and the public health sector is reeling from the dramatic rise in overdose deaths. Only with a broader awareness of the gravity of this drug crisis and increased funding for both law enforcement and treatment centers can the U.S. even begin to make a dent in the problem.