In-Depth: Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to establish a Joint Task Force at the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop fentanyl and other opioids entering the U.S.:
“Rhode Island continues to be among the states hardest hit by the opioid overdose epidemic. We need to take a multi-pronged approach to solve this ongoing public health crisis, and it must include increased efforts to keep fentanyl and other opioids out of the country and off of our streets. That’s why I'm proud to join Representative King to introduce this bipartisan bill that will help the Department of Homeland Security better prevent the trafficking of these addictive and deadly drugs. We must do everything we can to ensure the health and safety of our communities.”
In floor remarks at this bill’s committee markup, Rep. Langevin noted that because fentanyl is almost exclusively smuggled into the country illegally, preventing its entry into the U.S. could help turn the tide on this growing problem:
“[F]entanyl, a once obscure synthetic opioid… was involved in two thirds of drug overdose deaths in Rhode Island [in 2018]. Our constituents need leadership from Congress and from this Committee in order to stem the tide. Unlike many other prescription opioids, which are often diverted from legitimate purposes, the bulk of illicit fentanyl use is tied to drugs smuggled across the border, especially from China. Last Congress, under the leadership of Senator Claire McCaskill, the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs conducted a study that found the vast majority of opioids interdicted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are seized at ports of entry. Between 2013 and 2017, approximately 25,405 pounds, or 88% of all opioids were seized by CBP. The most active areas were located along the southern border as those seizures accounted for 75% of all opioids collected at ports of entry during the same five-year period.”
Rep. Langevin added that this bill uses a proven method to increase effectiveness, coordination, and information-sharing across agencies, jurisdictions, and organizations:
“My bill, the Joint Task Force to Combat Opioid Trafficking Act of 2019, authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish a task force to enhance the internal integration of the Department’s border security operations to detect, interdict, disrupt, and prevent narcotics, including fentanyl, from entering the United States. The bill builds upon the existing joint task force model, pioneered by former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, to foster coordination at the highest levels of the Department on specific challenges… Importantly, the bill also encourages the opioids joint task force to collaborate with private sector organizations and any other Federal, State, local, tribal, territorial, or international task force—including those working with the United States Postal Service and other parcel delivery services—to increase operational effectiveness, coordination, and information sharing. Addressing the crisis ravaging our communities is, of necessity, collaborative. Public health professionals, social services providers, and law enforcement agencies all have important roles to play. DHS needs to be a bigger part of that conversation, and it needs to bring its capabilities to the table in a manner facilitated by the joint task force model.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Max Rose (D-NY) argues that a Joint Task Force is necessary to end fentanyl’s inflow into communities:
“The opioid epidemic has been devastating families and communities across the country… We’ve seen real progress towards beating back this epidemic on the local level thanks in large part to a comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck approach. However, in order to truly end the flow of fentanyl into our communities we need to take the same approach nationally, and the creation of a Joint Task Force to zero in on this threat is a critical step towards that goal.”
Cosponsor Rep. Michael McCaul, Lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Chairman Emeritus on the House Homeland Security Committee, adds:
“For far too long, the flow of illicit drugs across our borders has been fueling an epidemic of addiction in our local communities. It’s going to take a robust, coordinated effort to end this public health crisis. The Joint Task Force to Combat Opioid Trafficking Act will do just that by empowering the Department of Homeland Security to launch a joint task force specifically aimed at stopping illicit narcotics, such as fentanyl and other deadly synthetic opioids, from entering the United States.”
In the current Congress, this legislation has unanimously passed the House Homeland Security Committee with the support of six bipartisan cosponsors, including five Republicans and one Democrat. Last Congress, it passed the House by voice vote with the support of two Republican House cosponsors. Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), had four Senate cosponsors, including three Democrats and one Independent, and didn’t receive a committee vote.
Of Note: The CDC reports that 70,237 people died from drug overdoses in 2017 — and 47,600 (nearly 68%) of those deaths involved prescription or illicit opioids. In 2017, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and Kentucky had the highest rates of drug overdose deaths. Respectively, these states saw 57.8, 46.3, 44.3, 44.0, and 37.2 deaths per 100,000 due to drug overdose.
The RAND Corporation reports that in 2018, the eastern U.S. and some regional drug markets in Canada also saw dramatic increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl (~3,000 deaths in 2013 versus over 30,000 deaths in 2018). In a recently released report, the RAND Corporation warns “once fentanyl gains a foothold, it appears capable of sweeping through a market in a few years.” It also warns that fentanyl drives up deaths, rather than the number of users — which is to say, it’s a deadlier drug than other opioids.
Fentanyl — a powerful and deadly synthetic opioid analgesic similar to morphine, but 50-100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times more powerful than heroin — is often added to heroin. This causes users to experience a stronger effect than they’d planned, often leading to an overdose. As proof of this, the Drug Enforcement Association (DEA) reported that fentanyl was present in 67 percent of the 5,456 drug overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 29,418 Americans died from fentanyl overdoses in 2017 — up by 840 from 2012.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seizure data, China is the principal source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-related compounds in the U.S., including both scheduled and non-scheduled substances. According to Rep. Langevin’s office, about 90% of illicit fentanyl that winds up in the U.S. is produced in China.
Since fentanyl is fairly cheap to produce, it could shift to be manufactured in other nations or even domestically.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Darwin Brandis)