The Washington Post is out with a blistering post-mortem of the Obama Administration’s handling of the early stages of the American fentanyl addiction epidemic. The article is a targeted, direct and unflinching indictment of top regulators’ negligence in curtailing the spread of the drug, which led to over nearly 29,000 deaths last year alone, through a series of critical missed opportunities. Addiction treatment professionals and public health experts have aptly described the fentanyl addiction epidemic as the worst addiction crisis in American history. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the drug is a primary driver of overall overdose fatality.
…And Speaking of the CDC…
The WAPO article starts chronicling the shortcomings of the Obama Administration with a letter written in 2016 by a group of 11 experts, imploring top-level administration officials, including the current drug czar and head of the CDC, to take immediate steps toward declaring fentanyl a public health emergency. The crisis had been steadily building for three years prior to the letter. After some peripheral consideration, the letter ended up falling on def ears. Experts are characterizing the failure to act on the letter and other subsequent lackluster efforts from the administration to contain fentanyl as a massive institutional failure that there is no real plan or blueprint to rectify.
A Rapidly Escalating Public Health Crisis
Objectively speaking, it’s not incredibly difficult to contextualize how the Obama Administration dropped the ball on fentanyl addiction prevention. The drug’s pervasive and deadly spread reads like something out of a science fiction novel. The CDC now reports that between 2013 and 2017, over 67,000 people have overdosed from this dangerous and other powerful synthetic opioids, more than the number of US military personnel killed during the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. In 2017, it became the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States, playing a role in well over half of all opioid overdoses that same year. The drug has played a marked role in decreasing overall life expectancy. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid unlike any other substance abuse threat. It is manufactured primarily in Chinese labs and is 50 times more potent than pure heroin.
One of the most dangerous elements of fentanyl is the incredibly small amount it takes to have a deadly impact. Very often, other drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are laced with the drug without users knowing, increasing their vulnerability to overdose.
What Could Have Been Done?
From the start, federal officials took the flawed view of fentanyl addiction as an extension of the opioid crisis, and not a specific threat. This led to a comprehensive failure to allocate specialized resources to the problem, including funding and preventive legislation. As year-after-year death tolls started to rise, it became increasingly apparent that fentanyl addiction was its own distinct public health issue. Officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration who were directly involved with prevention say that it caught the country by surprise and that there was not an immediate urgency to act.
There were, however, several missed chances along the way to increase intervention efforts. One instance of this continued delay to act is the failure of the Obama Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy to include any language on fentanyl beyond one line referencing its sporadic presence in heroin. The report was issued eight months after the DEA issued a fentanyl alert outlining the dangers of the drug. Finally, with 10 days to go in his term on January 11, 2017, President Obama called fentanyl a national crisis.
What Can Be Done Now?
During the initial stages of his term, President Trump took steps to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency; however, there has been no real funding behind fighting fentanyl addiction and overdose. Instead, the Justice Department is ramping up enforcement efforts while experts are saying the country cannot arrest its way out of this problem, and call for a comprehensive blend of prevention, enforcement and treatment accessibility.
The reality is that nobody really saw the fentanyl epidemic coming until it was too late. Everyone, from Main St., USA to Pennsylvania Avenue was floored by just how much this drug changed the face of the fight against American addiction. Nevertheless, the problem is now right here at our doorstep and it’s killing more and more of our friends and loved ones every year. The only way to reverse course is through an all-hands-on-deck approach that includes the Politician, the Doctor, the Police Officer, the Citizen and the Family.