Can the U.S. government slow down or stop lethal fentanyl? While the word “crisis” doesn’t accurately describe all uses of opioids, it fits the fentanyl challenge. Veteran journalist and “Dreamland” author Sam Quinones calls it a “national poisoning.” The U.S. has managed addictions in the past, but fentanyl kills its victims fast. The problem also is getting worse: The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) states in its Overdose Response Strategy that deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl jumped from nearly 58,000 in 2020 to 71,000 in 2021, the latest reported data.
This crisis is not new. According to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report, deaths from synthetic opioids have been climbing steadily since 2013. Meanwhile, Mexican drug trafficking cartels have supplanted domestic illegal pill-pressing operations for fentanyl, much as they did for U.S. production of methamphetamine. Fentanyl is not only the main driver in overdose deaths, but also the easiest drug to smuggle. In 2022, according to Customs and Border Protection, agents seized a mere 14,700 kilos of fentanyl, only about 2% of all illegal drugs seized.
Public health officials stress reducing the demand for fentanyl and thus reducing harm, but Quinones argues any strategy will fail if the supply of drugs is not reduced—supply creates the demand. He is convinced the U.S. government has the power to confront this scourge, but based on its past record, that confidence may be misplaced.
Low Official Expectations
Numerous federal agencies within the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, the U.S. intelligence community and even the Pentagon engage in drug interdiction. They work diligently to make an enormous amount of drug busts, but they have shown no progress in reducing the overall illegal drug supply. In February, the leaders of the DEA, ONDCP and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on their plans to counter fentanyl. As DEA administrator Anne Milgram acknowledged, despite great effort to contain it, fentanyl is widespread throughout the United States. Despite this admission of failure—overdose deaths are rising and drug availability increasing—the agencies received a respectful hearing, in stark contrast to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas’ treatment over the border immigration crisis.
In fact, the U.S. overdose death rate increased more than 250% between 2000 and 2019. In 2021, more than 9 million Americans abused opioids such as fentanyl, according to U.S. government statistics.
As a consequence of poor performance on the supply side, the U.S. government spends about the same amount on prevention of and treatment for illicit drug use as it does on law enforcement and interdiction. In 2022, about $40 billion of the federal budget was spent on countering illegal drugs. Biden’s 2022 National Drug Strategy plans to reduce supply with reasonable-seeming metrics, but tellingly, the new strategy doesn’t set a concrete goal for the supply-side reduction of fentanyl.
Much of what the feds report on drug interdiction demonstrates impressive activity, but it has no impact on overall addiction rates. For example, in 2022 the DEA reportedly seized more than double the amount of fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills than it seized in 2021, and it estimated these seizures represented nearly 380 million potentially deadly doses of fentanyl. Impressive figures, but in fact, this statistic suggests failure. The feds believe greater seizures mean more drugs are entering the country, not less. So, drug seizure statistics tell us nothing meaningful about the total supply of illegal drugs.
Moreover, seizing illegal drugs isn’t always the top priority. U.S. authorities seize most fentanyl at southwest border ports of entry, where it is usually smuggled by American citizens traveling from Mexico. But most drug smugglers actually get through because the southwest border security prioritizes facilitating commerce; there has been a longtime push to reduce border wait times. Customs inspectors usually have less than a minute to determine whether a vehicle needs closer inspection. If the U.S. were to prioritize more border seizures, it would risk disrupting U.S.-Mexico trade, which was $780 billion last year, with most of it transiting the southwest border.
We have a good idea of the quantity of drugs seized by Customs and Border Protection at the border, but after that the picture gets murky. According to a 2019 Congressional Research Service report, no central database gathers statistics on all seizures of illicit drugs in the U.S. The DEA collects seizure data at the El Paso Intelligence Center, but contributing to this database is voluntary for some federal agencies and for state and local authorities.
Another issue is that it is hard to get a handle on how many federal entities are engaged against drug trafficking at any time. In 2014, the Congressional Research Service identified at least 250 fusion centers and task forces—which include federal, state, local and tribal authorities—operating in just the southwest border region. No one seems to know how many of these task forces are working on drug issues, how they are coordinated or whether these efforts are strategically effective.
Since 1988, the major initiative for drug interdiction within the U.S. has been the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, administered by ONDCP. According to the ONDCP website, nearly 23,000 federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agents monitor 33 high-intensity drug trafficking areas nationwide. Since the program started in 1988, it is unclear whether HIDTA has ever improved conditions in these 33 areas. As journalist Ben Westhoff notes in “Fentanyl, Inc.,” enormous local, state and federal resources in 2016 and 2017 were deployed against fentanyl in the Chicago HIDTA, but fentanyl deaths there continued to rise.
The Justice Department-led Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, which include 600 federal prosecutors, 1,200 federal agents and nearly 5,000 individual investigative groups, are another major initiative that has failed to make progress. According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, federal convictions for drug-related crimes decreased significantly after 2006, dropping steadily in the Obama and Trump administrations. Although annual convictions now are up under the Biden administration, they still are nearly 34% lower than they were in 2002.
Mexico’s Going South
The fentanyl crisis is exacerbated because our foreign relations are at a low ebb with source countries China and Mexico. Quinones believes that the chemical labs in Mexico make the cartels vulnerable to interdiction and that their Chinese precursor drug supplies can be intercepted. He laments the inability of Washington and Mexico City to make a strong alliance to combat this problem.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a strong nationalist, publicly absolves his country of responsibility, saying fentanyl is a U.S. problem. One can understand Mexican frustration with the issue. The strong U.S.-supported kingpin strategy in the 2000s captured many serious narcotraffickers in Mexico, but it came at the cost of increased violence and failed completely to disrupt drug trafficking operations to the U.S.
The DEA aims to defeat Mexico’s fentanyl-trafficking Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels but is now hamstrung by the López Obrador administration. Brookings Institution expert Vanda Felbab-Brown accurately describes Mexico’s cooperation with U.S. law enforcement as having “tanked.” Meanwhile, the Chinese have stopped cooperating with us on law enforcement too, despite in 2019 banning the production of fentanyl.
At least López Obrador has demonstrated some sensitivity to U.S. pressure. In March, top U.S. and Mexican officials convened to discuss breaking up fentanyl labs and curbing gun trafficking. Mexico is beginning to suffer from fentanyl overdoses in major border cities such as Tijuana. Prior to the meeting, the Mexican army broke up a huge fentanyl lab run by the Sinaloa cartel. But more activity may be mere window dressing; the Mexican army apparently inflated its data for lab seizures, according to emails released by Mexican hackers. Corruption probably shields most of these labs.
Cracking down on fentanyl labs is necessary, but progress will stall until we cut off the Mexican cartels’ main sources of power: guns and money. Gun trafficking headed south is a major failure of U.S. law enforcement. In March, Customs and Border Protection seized a modest cache of weapons heading south in Eagle Pass, Texas. This seizure made news, but it represents a drop in the bucket of the estimated 200,000 weapons illegally heading south every year. U.S. officials seized only 321 firearms heading south in the first 10 months of 2020, and the government still lacks good performance metrics to measure progress against gunrunning. According to crime expert Ioan Grillo, the open market for guns in the U.S. and our weak gun trafficking laws contribute significantly to the cartels’ ability to fend off the Mexican government. Our lifting of the assault weapons ban in 2004 coincided with the sharp rise of drug trafficker violence in Mexico.
As for the cartels’ cash flow, U.S. activity hardly makes a dent. In 2010, a Homeland Security report estimated their revenue between $19 billion and $29 billion annually, one of several estimates. Whatever revenue figures we accept, we don’t come close to interrupting the cash flow. According to the DEA’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, in 2019 there were more than 3,000 bulk currency seizures in the United States, representing more than $368 million seized—a small fraction of estimated cartel revenue.
Is Progress Possible?
Years of drug war policies have failed dramatically to reduce drug addiction in America. So, can more effort against the drug supply really make a difference? Perhaps some progress is possible if we stop accepting status quo policies.
To start with, no impact on the drug supply side is possible as long as we keep accepting the same meaningless statistical measurements promoted by federal officials year in and year out. Seizure data must be an indicator of progress, not mere activity. We need to have a better handle on total drugs seized in the U.S. by all law enforcement entities. Likewise, we must raise the costs for drug traffickers. Federal law enforcement agencies must be held accountable to explain why drug convictions are down despite years of rising overdose rates.
Also, we need to step up the pressure on Mexico and stop accepting the excuse that the drug cartels, the chief suppliers of fentanyl, are too powerful to stop. Tiny El Salvador has proven that a determined government can succeed against violent criminal gangs. The Mexicans have far more resources at their disposal. But in fairness to them, they will need to see a stronger commitment on our part, which will entail some tough policy choices.
If we are serious about stopping fentanyl, we will need to prioritize security, not wait times at the southwest border, to better intercept the flow of drugs heading north and guns and money heading south to Mexican criminals. Additionally, U.S. law enforcement needs more legal authority to stop gunrunning, which must include computerized tracking and background checks. Unless we strike hard at Mexican cartels’ sources of power—which will include monitoring closely semi-automatic rifle sales—fentanyl will flow freely into the U.S. market, and our drug policy will just be about treating the ever-growing number of victims.