FEND Act Against Fentanyl Trafficking Could Worsen Overdose Crisis

May 15, 2024

As harm reduction efforts around the United States face intense backlash, politicians are doubling down on the notion of law enforcement as a means of curbing overdoses. A new federal law designed to thwart international trafficking organizations will likely make the US drug supply even riskier and exacerbate the crisis, experts say.

President Joe Biden signed into law the Fentanyl Eradication and Narcotics Deterrence (FEND) Off Fentanyl Act in late April. It will purportedly make it easier for federal agencies to disrupt the flow of fentanyl into the US by declaring international trafficking a national emergency, sanctioning transnational groups believed to traffic fentanyl, and fighting fentanyl-related money laundering, among other measures, according to a Senate news release.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who crafted the bill, said in a statement that the law will “allow us to go directly after the drug cartels’ billions in illicit profits, targeting the entire fentanyl supply chain and sanctioning illicit opioid traffickers and money launderers in China and Mexico.”

FEND is being applauded by law enforcement agencies, which helped him create the legislation, according to Brown.

“Its passage will help stop the flow of this deadly poison into our country and help us save lives,” said Tom Austin, executive director of the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a union for Ohio cops, in a news release by the National Sheriffs’ Association.

“We’re going to get another, more potent drug in the supply.”

But Maritza Perez Medina, director of the office of federal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said focusing on disrupting traffickers is “more of the same.”

“It’s just going to create an environment where drug manufacturers are gonna want to be more creative, to not lose the profit,” she told Filter. “We’re going to get the same results. We’re going to get another, more potent drug in the supply.”

Jeffrey Singer, MD, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute think tank, similarly said that the new law is not only “futile,” but will likely result in trafficking organizations putting new substances into the supply, including nitazenes—a group of emerging synthetic opioids with variable and sometimes very high potency.

“Depending on which kind of nitazene you get, it could be anywhere from equivalent to, to much more potent than fentanyl,” Singer told Filter. “And they’re going to be much harder to trace because they’re from a category of drugs called benzimidazoles.

Benzimidazoles, he explained, are composed of precursor chemicals that are commonly used for legal drugs, including antacid treatments, antifungals and blood pressure medications.

“If it gets harder and harder for trafficking organizations to get their hands on fentanyl precursors, it’ll just give them all the more reason to switch.”

Depending on what a chemist adds to the basic benzimidazole structure, the resulting substance can “travel in all different directions,” Singer said. “If it gets harder and harder for drug trafficking organizations to get their hands on fentanyl precursors or precursors of fentanyl precursors, it’ll just give them all the more reason to switch to benzimidazoles.”

In its national drug threat assessment released May 9, the Drug Enforcement Administration stated that the shift from plant-based drugs like heroin and cocaine to synthetics “has resulted in the most dangerous and deadly drug crisis the United States has ever faced.”

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a news release that the agency’s response is to “use all available resources to target” global drug distributors.

This isn’t the first time the US has put pressure on other countries to curb fentanyl production. In 2019, President Donald Trump successfully pushed China to ban the production and sale of fentanyl, which resulted in far less of the finished product being shipped directly from China to the US. But that dramatic drop didn’t last, and Mexican trafficking groups adapted by using precursor chemicals to manufacture fentanyl themselves.

Seizures of fentanyl reported by Customs and Border Protection have increased more than 800 percent since 2019. Other substances, including xylazine, the animal tranquilizer combined with heroin or fentanyl to make tranq dope, are also increasingly prevalent in the US drug supply in many regions.

A renewed crackdown could see history repeat itself, simply displacing and diversifying production.

A renewed crackdown could see history repeat itself, simply displacing and diversifying production. If manufacturers in China, for example, are under too much scrutiny, then those in India, another chemical industry giant, could take their place, Singer said. That goes for Mexico, too.

“A lot of people in the press, as well as in government, think of these organizations as Mexican-based drug cartels. In fact, they really need to be thought of as transnational drug trafficking organizations,” Singer said. “To think that, you know, you’re gonna be able to trace money in and out of MexicoThese organizations are now global.”

Both Perez Medina and Singer believe the government is aware that more law enforcement won’t solve the overdose crisis.

“They’re trying to be responsive to what they’re seeing, and that’s the unfortunate deaths of a lot of their constituents,” Perez Medina said. “But rather than educating people about what works, they’re going with the easiest option. And the easiest option is criminalization because that’s what our culture is used to after 50 years of the work of a drug war.”

Expanding access to health care and harm reduction, she said, is the approach that could actually “turn this tide.” 

 


 

Photograph of seized fentanyl via Picryl/Public Domain

The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance.

Manisha Krishnan

Manisha is a New York-based journalist who covers drug policy. Her VICE News documentary, Beyond Fentanyl, won a 2023 Emmy for outstanding health or medical coverage.

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