Originally published in Tucson Sentinel.
For too long, we’ve played politics with the public health threat of fentanyl. It’s time we addressed it with science-based solutions and raised awareness that cuts through the political talking points.
It’s true that the smallest dose of fentanyl can be deadly. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Illegally produced fentanyl is the driving force of the fentanyl epidemic.
In 2021, our nation reached a horrifying statistic when we surpassed more 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses — synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, were largely responsible. Fentanyl is commonly mixed with other drugs to increase their potency and cut costs. Many drug users are unaware that their drugs were cut with fentanyl, significantly increasing the risk of overdose death.
While this number is hard to fathom, it’s all too real for the families, friends and loved ones of those lost before their time.
Our home of Pima County is no exception to the heartbreak. Last year, fentanyl was the leading cause of death for teenagers aged 13-19 in Pima County and the cause of 60% of overdose deaths. Communities of color with minimal resources face the highest social vulnerability making them disproportionately at risk for overdose deaths and many of our own residents have died as a result.
In Arizona and other states, migrants have become a scapegoat for the opioid crisis. Many Republicans falsely accuse migrants, blame the “border crisis” and label “open border policies” for the rise in fentanyl overdoses.
Republicans use this tragedy to call for increased militarization and wasteful spending on a border wall on federal, state and tribal lands. Former vice president Mike Pence even visited the southern border in Arizona recently as a photo-op and called for the reinstatement of Trump’s inhumane border policies that resulted in children being separated from their families.
The facts are: there are no “open borders”; traffickers use vehicles and roads to move drugs, not remote inaccessible desert; and increased militarization of the border, building a border wall and dehumanization of migrants will not stop drug smuggling or end the fentanyl epidemic.
The very agencies responsible for border and drug enforcement have determined that vast majority of drugs at the border are seized at our ports of entry. Additionally, the U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking states that trafficking of fentanyl through mail is growing, with cartels increasingly using the postal service. The Government Accountability Office found that mail is by far the most preferred conveyance type for drug smuggling.
Instead of spending billions of dollars on building a border wall, scapegoating migrants and blustery rhetoric, we must invest in science backed methods to address this very real public health threat. We should focus on enhanced screening methods for mail and increased resources for our overburdened ports of entries so they can target the concealment of fentanyl.
We must ensure that tools for harm reduction are easily accessible. Naloxone and fentanyl test strips must be readily available in all communities with widespread education on their use. We must spread awareness in communities, especially communities of color, about the risks of fentanyl and fentanyl-tainted drugs.
To save lives, we need to make the necessary resources, treatments, and prevention services more accessible than drugs. We must raise awareness of the issue, and ensure susceptible communities understand the risk and prevalence of fentanyl and that other drugs may be laced with it.
President Biden and congressional Democrats have undertaken a whole-of-government approach to spread awareness and act on this critical issue.
In April, I held a hearing to examine the opioid crisis in disproportionately harmed tribal communities. By May, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced $55 million in funding for its Tribal Opioid Response (TOR) grant program.
The Drug Enforcement Agency launched the One Pill Can Kill campaign to inform the American public of the dangers of fake prescription pills. The only safe medications are ones prescribed by a trusted medical professional and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.
President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget proposes a historic investment of $42 billion for National Drug Control Program agencies to combat the overdose epidemic and less than a year ago, HHS released a new comprehensive Overdose Prevention Strategy focusing on prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery. To close the gap in underserved communities, the Biden administration recently announced $1.5 billion in funding for opioid response grant programs to develop systems and networks of care.
It is time to stop stigmatizing drug users and begin treating them with dignity so that they are not discouraged from harm reduction practices or seeking treatment. We need science backed solutions not scapegoating. I have consistently worked in Congress to increase resources for our ports of entry, and I invite my Republican colleagues that seriously care about drug interdiction to join me.