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White House honors law enforcement in fight against synthetic opioids, including fentanyl

The White House on Thursday honored law enforcement agencies and officials who have secured major drug busts in the fight against synthetic opioids like fentanyl, as a top official said that the substances had opened a “Pandora’s Box” that requires a multi-faceted and multi-agency response.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) held an event honoring nine local, state and federal enforcement agencies and officials for their efforts in stopping the trafficking of drugs like fentanyl — which have been associated with a massive uptick in overdose deaths in the U.S. in recent years.

Included in those agencies honored was Homeland Security Investigations, Postal Inspection Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Coast Guard and the FBI.

Colorado State Trooper Mathew Bowman was one of those honored. In 2021, Bowman along with K-9 Mason, seized 401lbs of methamphetamine, 10,000 fentanyl pills, 20lbs of fentanyl powder, 38lbs of heroin, 32lbs of cocaine, 20 illegal firearms and over $874,000 in illicit U.S. currency.

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In an interview with Fox News Digital, ONDCP Director Dr. Rahul Gupta said that as a practicing physician, he had seen the drug system, and the subsequent challenge to the U.S., evolve over the years, most recently with the rise of synthetic opioids.

“We are seeing a transition with having the most dynamic supply environment this country’s ever seen. And what that means is we’re seeing a shift from plant based or organic compounds, primarily like cocaine and heroin, to synthetic compounds — compounds that you don’t need large fields and crops to produce, you don’t need a lot of time to produce. You can produce them in small clandestine labs…and these compounds are getting more lethal in smaller amounts.”

He said of the 108,000 overdose deaths last year, more than 80,000 were linked with opioids like fentanyl — which can be deadly in tiny doses, and is often cut with other drugs. 

“The drug supply has become so pervasive with fentanyl that a good amount of people aren’t aware that fentanyl is in their drug supply,” he said.

Fentanyl is typically produced in Mexico with precursors made in China and trafficked via the southern border. More than 10,586 lbs of fentanyl were seized at the southern border in FY 2021 by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), up significantly from the 4,558 lbs in FY 2020 and 2,633 in FY 2019. Most of the amount seized is caught at ports of entry.

The DEA has warned of a “nationwide spike” in mass fentanyl overdoses and has said the drug is killing Americans at an “unprecedented rate.”

Gupta said that the push for profits by transnational organizations is what is driving the transition to synthetic opioids.

“What’s driving this transition by opening this Pandora’s Box, because now it’s basically a matter of chemistry, and you can create a number of compounds, is ultimately profits,” he said. “The profits of transnational criminal organizations is what is driving both the shift, but also this innovation.”

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Much of the focus by Republicans and others have focused on combating the smuggling of fentanyl into the U.S. via the southern border. The White House has emphasized a broad response focusing not only on interdiction — including on the Darknet and the high seas, as well as the border — but also treatment for Americans affected by the crisis.

“The same organizations will also be trafficking guns, humans, as well as money, and we have to hold host countries accountable and responsible for their actions as well. So that’s one piece,” Gupta said. “At the same time, we also know that less than one out of ten people get the treatment in the United States that need to, and we’ve got to make sure that people get the help.”

The White House has also noted its investments in agencies for national drug control programs and $293 million for CBP to prevent fentanyl smuggling. It has also successfully pushed the U.N. to ban precursor chemicals, and President Biden himself issued two executive orders on the matter.

Gupta noted the DEA assessment that two out of five counterfeit pills have lethal doses of fentanyl in them, meaning the odds are “worse than playing Russian roulette.” As a result, he says, it makes the work the law enforcement agencies do all that more important.

“Every seizure is an amount of drugs that are not going into killing Americans and the profits of those are not going back to the bad guys to cause more problems,” he said.

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