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Fentanyl Bloodbath Demands Domestic Crackdown On Drug Dealing

We can’t stop it from coming into the US, but we can restrict its sale and mandate rehab

For the last three years, Leighton Woodhouse and I have been documenting the death and destruction caused by the fentanyl crisis. Last year, fentanyl killed 75,000 Americans; illicit drugs overall killed 112,000 — up from 20,000 in the year 2000. That means fentanyl is killing more people annually than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

And yet, nothing of significance is being done to stop the flow of fentanyl. Veteran drug war reporter Ioan Grillo pours cold water on the idea that we can stop the flow of fentanyl coming into the U.S. But even if we could, we couldn’t do it in time to save the million lives that we are on track to lose to illicit drugs over the next decade.

The only alternative is to crack down on open-air drug dealing and drug use in the US, including by mandating rehab as an alternative to prison. With his strong piece below, Grillo joins other liberal-minded reporters and writers, like Sam Quiñones, Leighton, and me, who are speaking out against business as usual.

I am sharing above the video that Leighton shot of our travels around California interviewing homeless addicts about the violence and death on the street. They make it clear that harm reduction alone is failing. We need a different approach. — Michael Shellenberger

by Ioan Grillo

Republicans and Democrats alike agree we must stop fentanyl from crossing the border. Under pressure from President Donald Trump in 2019, China reclassified all types of fentanyl as a controlled substance, stopping the labs from selling it to the cartels. Under new pressure from President Joe Biden, the Chinese government agreed last November to go after those who sell precursor chemicals that are combined to make fentanyl in Mexican labs.

But none of it’s working. Precursors are made in China and are smuggled into Mexico, where it’s turned into a narcotic. While some drug traffickers are busted along the way, most of the precursor chemicals make it through.

It’s easy to understand why this is. Mexico’s biggest port of Manzanillo, on the Pacific Ocean, receives 3 million containers a year, many from China. Substances can be hidden in a false bill of lading, and inspectors have to open containers and run lab tests. A freight company owner at the port told me that rotten agents would charge 800,000 pesos, or about $45,000, to let a container with drugs through with no inspection.

Same problem with the fentanyl itself. I asked an agent fighting drugs at the border what percentage of the fentanyl the authorities were catching. “I think it’s between 20 and 30 percent,” he says. “It’s hard to detect.” In 2023, agents seized a record 27,000 pounds of fentanyl coming in, and so over 100,000 pounds of fentanyl could be getting through.

What about adding more soldiers and Border Patrol to the desert? It would only have a limited effect. Most drugs are coming over the bridges. Agents can step up searches on those. But with the sheer volume of people crossing, there are limits to what they can do.

To search everyone, the federal agent says, they would need about five times as many officers, and it would create day-long lines that would massively disrupt the half a trillion dollars in annual trade.  “That would never happen because it affects commerce in the United States, and Congressmen will get involved,” said the federal agent.

Even if Washington could get China to really stop the sales, the problem would not be solved. The precursors can also be produced in other countries, and India already has a budding industry.

There is a danger that the Mexican cartels will just make precursors themselves. “We will just force them to make a move up the chain, and then it will be even more difficult to catch them,” said an agent from Homeland Security Investigations going after the global fentanyl supply. “We will end up busting sand and water.”

The United States needs to face a grim reality. Neither troops on the border, nor missile strikes into Mexico, nor threats to the Chinese government will likely make the river of poison grind to a halt. A half-century of the war on drugs has shown that narcotics flow like water and find the path of least resistance.

But we can’t let fentanyl continue to kill American citizens.

There were a record of 112,000 overdose deaths in the 12-month period ending in September, with 75,000 of them from fentanyl. To put that number in perspective, less than 20,000 Americans total died from drug overdoses in the year 2000.

How in the world, then, will the US ever stop fentanyl from killing more Americans in a single year than U.S. troops died in the Vietnam War?

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