Senators Rob Portman and Amy Klobuchar
Editor’s Note: Rob Portman, a Republican, is a senator from Ohio, and founder of PreventionFIRST!, Cincinnati's community anti-drug coalition. He is the author of several laws aimed at fighting the addiction epidemic. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, as the former Hennepin County Attorney, has long led local and national efforts to curb drug abuse and help people overcome addiction. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
Addiction to heroin and prescription drugs is an epidemic spreading across our country. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death, taking one American life every 12 minutes.
We have strong reasons to believe that this epidemic is getting worse, not better.
This month, the US-China Commission issued a disturbing new report on the influx of Chinese fentanyl -- a synthetic form of heroin that can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and even 100 times more powerful than morphine.
China has recently banned the synthetic drug carfentanil, and we are encouraged by that. But we still have serious reasons for concern. The commission report says that "the majority of fentanyl products found in the United States originate in China. ...Chinese law enforcement officials have struggled to adequately regulate the thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical facilities operating legally and illegally in the country, leading to increased production and export of illicit chemicals and drugs. Chinese chemical exporters ...covertly ship drugs to the Western hemisphere."
As troubling as this report is, it's not surprising. It just confirms what we have seen in our communities in Minnesota and Ohio firsthand. Synthetic forms of heroin are tearing apart families, devastating communities and taking lives.
For example, just two days after the commission's report came out, police in Butler County, Ohio seized $180,000 in fentanyl-laced heroin after suspected fentanyl overdoses killed five Ohioans in just one 26-hour period.
Minnesotans -- including Prince, who died last year of a fentanyl overdose -- have been similarly affected. In Duluth, Minnesota, the owner of a head shop called The Last Place on Earth was selling synthetic drugs, causing an uptick in police calls, emergency room visits, and even deaths in the area. Luckily, law enforcement got him, and he was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison.
But other dealers are still out there. And because of fentanyl and other synthetic forms of heroin, the drugs on the streets are getting stronger, more addictive and more dangerous.
Heroin is already extremely addictive and cheap. But now it is increasingly laced with synthetic drugs like fentanyl, carfentanil, or U-47700 to make it even more potent. How powerful are these drugs? According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, it only takes about two milligrams of fentanyl -- about the same amount as a pinch of salt -- to kill you.
As the report states, a large majority of these synthetic drugs are made in labs in China and then shipped to traffickers in the Western Hemisphere. Typically, synthetic forms of heroin are shipped to traffickers in our country through the postal system.
Unlike UPS or FedEx, the US Postal Service does not require electronic customs data for packages entering the country. That makes it easier on the traffickers and harder for our law enforcement to scan these packages for drugs like fentanyl or other smuggled products. And that leaves us more vulnerable to these international drug traffickers.
In the United States Senate, we have made progress in the fight against the addiction epidemic. Last year, President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, with our strong support. It's the first comprehensive reform of federal addiction policy in two decades, and it will help bring down the demand for drugs in our communities, support treatment and long-term recovery for those struggling with addiction, and increase the availability of naloxone -- a life-saving overdose-reversal drug -- so that our first responders can save more lives.
But we've got to build on this progress by stopping these dangerous synthetic drugs from crossing our borders and poisoning our communities.
That's why we introduced new, bipartisan legislation -- the Synthetic Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, or the STOP Act -- to simply close the loophole and require the postal service to obtain advance electronic data on packages before they cross our borders.
Based on expert testimony at hearings at the Senate Homeland Security Committee, this simple policy change would make it easier for our customs agents and the DEA to detect packages containing fentanyl or synthetic drugs to help keep this poison out of our country.
Our bill would take away a key tool of drug traffickers and restrict the supply of these drugs, raising their price and making them harder to get.
It's a simple, common sense next step we ought to take. And with the threat of synthetic heroin getting worse and worse, the urgency to act grows by the day.