Having surpassed gun homicides for the first time in 2015, the epidemic of heroin and opioid related deaths in the US continues to grow. Amid the dismal failure of the ‘war on drugs’, it seems US lawmakers are finally waking up to reality, and are pressing the nation’s drug czar for more data on the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl, including how it is trafficked and how many people it has killed, in the latest effort to thwart a spiraling drug crisis.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows that nearly 5,000 more people died from opioids in 2015 than in 2014. Both heroin and opioid use have exploded in the US, after decades of doctors over-prescribing painkillers in the 1990s and 2000s. A report from the CDC released Thursday found that the drug problem has become so deadly that heroin deaths outnumbered gun fatalities last year for the first time in US history. Until 2007, gun deaths outnumbered heroin deaths five to one, according to the Washington Post. But 2015 saw 12,989 people die from heroin and 12,979 die from gun homicides.
And now, as The Wall Street Journal reports, America’s politicians are finally spotting a problem with this trend. Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators filed a measure, the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, that seeks to curb shipments of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl by tightening U.S. postal system requirements for packages coming from other countries.
“The national opioid crisis is being compounded by the re-emergence of illicit fentanyl and its analogues, which are synthetic opioids far more potent than morphine or heroin,” said Mario Moreno Zepeda, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Given the urgency of the opioid overdose epidemic, we will reply to the Committee’s inquiries promptly.”
The four-page letter from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, signed by bipartisan committee leaders and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, calls the fentanyl crisis a top oversight priority. Addressed to Kemp Chester, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and sent Thursday, the letter includes 15 questions such as how much fentanyl comes into the U.S. through the mail and how many counterfeit fentanyl pills authorities have seized.
“On top of opioid overprescribing and heroin overdoses, we believe the United States is now facing another deadly wave: fentanyl,” said Tim Murphy, (R, Penn.) and Diana DeGette (D., Colo), chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, in a statement. “We are urgently seeking answers to determine whether the federal government recognizes the unique threat of fentanyl.”
Fentanyl has emerged as the chief drug threat in many parts of the country. Authorities believe it is pouring into the U.S. from China, sometimes with a stop in Mexico. The drug appeals to traffickers because it is made only with chemicals, and not the poppy plants needed for heroin, making it cheap and easy to produce.
The synthetic narcotic is also extremely potent, potentially 50 times the strength of heroin, ratcheting up the risks for users. Some take it unexpectedly because dealers may mix it into the heroin supply, or press it into fake versions of prescription pain pills that are supposed to contain a much less powerful narcotic.
Fentanyl played a major role in driving opioid deaths in the U.S. up nearly 16% to 33,091 in 2015, according to the most recent federal data, and hard-hit states have reported even more grim statistics for 2016.
An Energy and Commerce aide said the fentanyl crisis “is surging, with no end in sight,” and that it is more than a footnote to the nation’s heroin problem.