The theme of the addiction and recovery community as of late is that we need to get the opioid epidemic under control. This is important, as there are more people dying from opioid overdoses than ever before. In fact, from 1999 to 2014, the number of deaths by opioid overdose increased by 400 percent. It’s so important that it was a question in several debates and town halls during the presidential election last November. The President-Elect ran on a platform of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. and cited this as not only his immigration stance but his solution for the opioid epidemic. He believes drugs are coming over to the U.S. through the U.S.-Mexico border and that building a wall will stop this from happening. But what he doesn’t understand is that synthetic opioids are coming into the U.S. in other ways.
Where are the opioids coming from?
In December the Boston Globe reported that synthetic opioids are entering the U.S. by mail. They arrive through the U.S. Postal Service unscreened from overseas every day. Close to 1 million packages a day enter our country without any detailed electronic information that might let receivers know there are dangerous substances inside. Roughly 340 million pieces of mail arrive each year unchecked through the Postal Service and U.S. Customs and without prior electronic screening, even though Congress passed this requirement 14 years ago. It still have not been fully implemented.
Many of the synthetic opioids that come to the United States, including fentanyl a substance that is 50 times more potent than heroin, are made in China but pass through Mexico to come into the U.S. Drug cartels process and package them before they are smuggled across the border, federal officials say. However, a significant amount of opioids are bought by American users online, on sites that sell illegal products and then ship them directly to your home through the mail. Buyers need nothing more than a computer, an internet connection, and a mailbox to obtain these dangerous drugs.
In 2015, a consulting firm called LegitScript participated in an experiment to test the ease of shipping illicit substances via the mail. They made 29 purchases from illegal online pharmacies, most of them based in India. All 29 of the packages were successfully delivered and were not intercepted by the Postal Service.
Last year the CDC analyzed prescription rates and drug seizures between 2013 and 2014 in order to find out where fentanyl was coming from. They found that prescriptions have remained steady, even as death rates increased. Additionally, they found that drugs seized by law enforcement that tested positive for illegally manufactured fentanyl rose by 426 percent during that time. That means that the current epidemic is being driven by a massive influx of illegally made fentanyl masking itself as heroin and hiding in counterfeit prescription drugs. The DEA has identified China as the main source of the fentanyl and fentanyl-like compounds that make their way into the U.S.
Will a wall help?
According to the DEA, Chinese labs remain the primary manufacturers of synthetic opioids that are sold online and mailed to the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The DEA has worked with Chinese officials to put forth bans on 115 chemicals including synthetic drugs like K2, Spice, and Flakka, however, the problem persists because chemists continue to alter the chemical makeup of synthetic opioids to avoid committing a crime. The DEA hope to work with China on a ban for fentanyl and carfentanil as well, but this is only a short-term solution.
The BBC reported that 95 percent of the drugs moving from South America to the U.S. do so via water, on container ships, non-commercial vessels, pleasure boats, sailboats, fishing boats. Another common way drug traffickers transport drugs across the border is by underground tunnels. The tunnels go down as far as 40 feet below the Earth. Attempts to cover entryways include everything from pool tables, electric panels, hydraulic bathtubs, and elevators.
There is also the fact that there is already a physical wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The barrier is a series of walls and fences aimed at preventing illegal crossings from Mexico to the U.S. In 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it had more than 580 miles of barriers in place. The barriers were put in place as a part of three larger operations to decrease transfers of illegal drugs from Latin America and decrease the crossing of undocumented people.
A wall hasn’t stopped the influx of drugs yet and a new one won’t stop the drugs that are coming into the U.S. by mail, sea, and underground. To me, it seems like we need to do a better job of screening our mail and cutting off the illegal supply of drugs being sold on the internet. We also need to help those who are already suffering by offering affordable and accessible addiction treatment.
That’s why we need to build bridges, not walls. Bridges from addiction to recovery, bridges from darkness to light, and bridges that connect rather than isolate.