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Bipartisan report pushes for new game plan to tackle US opioid problem

Blaming fentanyl for causing a surge in overdose deaths in the U.S. since 2014, the congressional committee devoted to combating synthetic opioids recommended five courses of action in a new report.

WASHINGTON (CN) — America’s opioid crisis is now claiming more lives every year than firearms, suicide, homicide or car crashes, according to a report released Tuesday from the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking.

“This is one of our most pressing national security, law enforcement and public health challenges, and we must do more as a nation and a government to protect our most precious resource — American lives,” the 70-page paper states.

In media landscape dominated by Covid-19, political rancor and environmental disaster, the number of deaths caused by opioids seldom even make a footnote. What Tuesday's report underscores, however, is that the opioid issue has been both present and growing as Americans struggled to adjust to the novel coronavirus.

“In just the 12 months between June 2020 and May 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdose,”  the report notes.

Tasked with examining the threat of synthetic opioids like fentanyl within the country, the bipartisan commission noted that the illegal synthetics have been driving up overdose deaths since 2014. Fentanyl is estimated to be around 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Because it depresses central nervous system and respiratory functioning, exposure to the synthetic can prove fatal.

The commission recommends that five branches of government action: making the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy responsible for leading federal efforts to combat opioids; having law enforcement disrupt the supply of opioids from foreign countries; reduce the demand for the drugs via science-based treatments for addicts; source help from abroad via diplomatic channels to block the transport of chemicals that criminal networks use to manufacture fentanyl; and improve surveillance and data analysis tools, so that the U.S. government can better predict future opioid-use trends.

“Since 1999, we’ve lost more than one million Americans to drug overdoses. That’s one million moms, dads, sons, and daughters lost because our country’s response to the opioid epidemic has failed,” Democratic Congressman David Trone of Maryland said in a statement. “It’s time to come together, from all levels of government and both sides of the aisle, to address this epidemic and put an end to it once and for all." 

He pushed to use the commission’s report as a roadmap for swift, deliberate, bipartisan action.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who co-chairs the commission with Trone, further noted that 274 Americans die every day from drug overdoses, the equivalent of one person every five minutes.

“Every day it gets worse,” said Cotton. “We must destroy the cartels and drug trafficking networks that flood our streets with these poisons to protect our communities.”

Noting that “in Mexico, where the vast majority of these drugs are produced or transited, drug trafficking also contributes to corruption, challenges state security, and fuels extreme violence,” the report suggests that better coordinated law enforcement and diplomacy efforts could benefit all parties involved. Since most of the chemical raw materials for fentanyl are produced in China, and sent to Mexico, the commission suggests that countries could work together to shut down the shipment of these chemicals.

Michigan Republican Congressman Fred Upton focused his response to the report Tuesday on the geopolitical components. 

“We must redouble our efforts to secure the border against illegal trafficking by targeting Mexican cartels flooding our streets with illicit opioids and force China’s hand to crackdown on their pharmaceutical industry supplying cartels with the base compounds used to manufacture synthetic opioids,” Upton said.

The commission also pushed for more treatment and support for addicts and increased funding for research to better understand opioid use and addiction Tuesday. Previous federal anti-drug strategy has promoted long prison sentences but treatment has recently been promoted as a more effective alternative.

“Real progress can come only by pairing illicit synthetic opioid supply disruption with decreasing the domestic U.S. demand for these drugs,” the report notes.

Notably, this report comes just one day after the Justice Department told The Associated Press that it is “evaluating” legalizing safe injection sites — facilities that give addicts a medically supervised space to use their own heroin and other narcotics. At such sites, medical professionals trained in overdose revivals via naloxone are on hand, and the facilities also give out clean needles and counsel users about addiction treatment options.

There are currently two supervised injection sites in the country — both which opened in November 2021 in New York City, in East Harlem and Washington Heights. 

Similar groups have been blocked in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle from opening their own operations amid legal suits and public controversy.

After the Third Circuit blew out the Philadelphia effort in January 2021, the Supreme Court declined to weigh in. 

The federal government had fought safe injection sites under former President Donald Trump, but the commission pointed a finger at lawmakers blocking treatment expansions Tuesday, pressing the expansion of overdose treatment methods.

“Expanding access to available treatment options, prevention, and researching other innovative treatment modalities and harm reduction are paramount to reducing exposure to synthetic opioids or reversing opioid overdose,” the report states. “The number of overdose deaths would be higher without medication therapies and overdose-reversal interventions. Policymakers should remove unnecessary limitations and barriers and expand on medication-based treatment (and overdose prevention, for that matter).”

The Biden administration said Tuesday that the President has already called on lawmakers to pass his $41 billion plan to tackle the overdose epidemic and issued two executive orders to counter the trafficking of fentanyl. 

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