The Cable

This Is the New Threat Driving the Opioid Crisis

Fentanyl is taking over the market. And it’s killing record numbers of people.

Bags of fentanyl-laced heroin in the New York Attorney General's office in 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Bags of fentanyl-laced heroin in the New York Attorney General's office in 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

America has an opioid problem, but the face of that problem is shifting rapidly.

An emerging threats report prepared by the Drug Enforcement Administration and marked “for official use only” notes that fentanyl made up 65 percent of the agency’s opioid identifications in the second quarter of this year. The report, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy, is based on seized drug evidence analyzed by DEA’s laboratory.

Furanyl fentanyl, the next most common compound, made up another 9 percent of identifications in the opioid category.

These numbers reflect a frightening trend that has already been identified by public health officials. Data released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that fentanyl is now the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States.

The rise of fentanyl underscores just how hard it will be to solve the opioid epidemic. President Donald Trump this week declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency, saying that “overdoses are driven by a massive increase in addiction to prescription painkillers, heroin, and other opioids.”

Yet Trump’s long-awaited announcement comes months after he first promised to declare opioid abuse a “national emergency,” which would have freed up federal funding. A national public health emergency does not necessarily make more money automatically available.

The question is now how best to address the opioid crisis, whether through funding to help treat addiction or more emphasis on law enforcement, such as a border wall, the solution favored by Trump. A presidential commission, headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is expected to submit its final report next week.

Clamping down on drug supply has proved difficult, since the opioid epidemic is so fluid. Even if law enforcement were to curtail heroin coming in from Mexico, it might simply open new avenues of supply.

Much of furanyl fentanyl, for example, originates in China and comes through the mail.

The DEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jana Winter is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. @janawinter
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