Dismantle the Modern Day 'French Connection' to End the Opioid Crisis

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It appears that the United States may be turning a corner when it comes to the ongoing opioid crisis. New data from the Centers for Disease Control seems to indicate that for the first time since 1990 overall drug overdoses have declined. While this may seem like a cause for cautious optimism, the devil is always in the details.  


A decline in deaths related to prescription opioid painkillers was the main driver of this reduction. Greater availability of the overdose reversal drug naloxone has also played a role. But the strides we have made with prescription opioid overdoses are at risk of being outpaced by the skyrocketing death rate associated with illicit fentanyl.


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin. Given the fact that 2 milligrams – about 4 grains of sand worth – is enough to prove deadly, it is now the most common drug involved in overdose deaths, responsible for 59% of all opioid related deaths in 2017.


As fentanyl increasingly flooded America’s streets, law enforcement and our healthcare providers struggled to keep up. From 2010 to 2016 fentanyl related overdose deaths increased by 545%. The cause of the opioid crisis has clearly morphed and we need to adjust our focus accordingly.


In the 1970s, while working in the Birmingham Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I served as the liaison to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency). My work put me in close contact with many of the brave men and women who worked to dismantle the infamous heroin smuggling ring now known as the French connection, cutting off one of the biggest illicit opioid pipelines into the United States. 


Fast forward to present day. The China-based Zheng group and their fentanyl manufacturing facilities have replaced the Corsican gang and its Marseille heroin labs. While the players are different the core principal remains the same: dismantling the operations of manufacturers and suppliers is key to getting these drugs off the streets. 


China has publicly stated their willingness to help end the opioid crisis, but there is little evidence that they take this problem seriously or will put much effort into curtailing the flow of illicit fentanyl coming into the United States. 


Starting with the Obama administration, Beijing agreed to cooperate on “enhanced measures” to curb the supply of illicit fentanyl. But during that same time period seizures of illicit fentanyl at the border increased by 75,000 percent, illustrating the limitations of this partnership.


After a sustained pressure campaign from the Trump administration, China finally designated fentanyl a controlled substance as of this May, in theory instituting significant controls on the supply of illicit opioids coming from the country. But the Chinese are notorious for failing to uphold the agreements they make with the United States.  As American deaths continue to mount President Trump has finally had enough of their well-worn strategy of deflecting criticism and engaging in faux self-accountability, taking Xi Jingping to account on his twitter feed earlier this month. 


Congress is considering a new bipartisan piece of legislation that may finally force China to take meaningful action to curb the flow of illicit fentanyl. The Fentanyl Sanctions Act would provide U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials additional tools to cripple the operations of Chinese fentanyl manufacturers and smugglers. 


The bill requires sanctions on Chinese manufacturers and other entities that knowingly provide fentanyl or other synthetic opioids to traffickers and criminal organizations. It also provides a number of our leading law enforcement agencies with some much needed additional funding to combat these sophisticated criminal enterprises.


The Fentanyl Sanctions Act is the next logical step to build upon the legislative work Congress has already carried out to prevent fentanyl inflows into the United States. Sen. Rob Portman’s STOP Act has closed loopholes that allowed China to easily ship synthetic drugs into the United States and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s INTERDICT Act has helped stop the flow of opioids across the southern border. Now, by identifying and directly targeting the manufacturers putting this poison on our streets, we can take the fight directly to this modern day “French connection” and help make America healthy again. 


Charles King is a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation

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