Fighting the flood of fentanyl

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, February 28th, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up on The World and Everything in It: fighting fentanyl.

It’s a synthetic opioid. It causes the majority of deaths in this country among that class of drugs. Fentanyl fatalities jumped 45 percent from 2016 to 2017.

REICHARD: President Trump pointed to the fentanyl crisis as a justification for declaring a national emergency at the southern border.

TRUMP: Tens of thousands of innocent Americans are killed by lethal drugs that cross our border and flood into our cities — including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl.

And earlier this month, border patrol agents in Arizona made the largest seizure of fentanyl ever in the United States: 254 pounds hidden in a tractor trailer. Its street value: $3.5 million.

And now, a little blue pill called “Mexican oxy” is bringing another threat to public health. WORLD Radio’s Kristen Flavin has our story.

KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: Last year, 19-year-old Aaron Chavez and three other people decided to pop a few pills at a Halloween party in Tucson, Arizona. They believed they were taking oxycodone—a pill with a distinctive light blue color. All four overdosed.

Three of the partygoers survived—thanks to the quick work of police flagged down by others at the party. But Chavez never woke up. It turns out the pills they took weren’t regular oxycodone. They were something called “Mexican oxy”—a new substance that combines oxycodone with the highly potent fentanyl.

Chavez’s sister, Seanna, still struggles with her brother’s death.

CHAVEZ: I actually start my days every day now like I just say a prayer, just thanking God that I at least get to wake every day.

As injecting drugs became less socially acceptable, the practice of popping pills at parties has grown. And drug traffickers have taken note.

Oxycodone is produced in controlled pharmaceutical labs and then diverted to drug users. But the amount of fentanyl in Mexican oxy varies from pill to pill, depending on how the batch was mixed and made. Just one pill can contain enough fentanyl for three people.

Some of the pills are shipped from across the border, and others are pressed here in the United States using raw materials trafficked from Mexico.

COLEMAN: Four years ago we seized zero fentanyl in Arizona. Zero. Not any. Last year we seized hundreds of pounds of fentanyl powder and hundreds of thousands of tablets.

Douglas Coleman is a DEA special agent in charge for Arizona. He says a flood of fentanyl is flowing from Mexico into the southwestern U-S.

COLEMAN: So people say all the time, “Hey, why would they make this drug that’s so powerful it’s killing so many people?” The reality is that they know that some of this is going to kill people, but for them it’s an acceptable loss.

Compared to other drug scourges in U.S. history—like cocaine and heroin—fentanyl is cheaper to make, easier to transport, and much more profitable to sell. The opioid is made entirely from chemical precursors, so there’s no farming involved like with heroin, cocaine, or marijuana.

And the profits are sky-high.

COLEMAN: The reason that they’re so involved in fentanyl is that we have so many people that are addicted to opioids in this country and it’s a venue for them to get into that market even more so than they did with heroin. And, remember, for fentanyl it costs a couple thousand dollars to make enough drugs to make a couple million dollars in profits.

According to the DEA, most fentanyl comes into the United States in privately owned vehicles through legal border crossings. In 20-18, authorities in Arizona seized 445 pounds of fentanyl. The year before, they captured only 172 pounds.

As law enforcement agencies struggle to get a handle on the fentanyl crisis, healthcare providers, families, communities, and churches grapple with how to help the increasing number of opioid addicts.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services put out a resource manual for faith and community leaders responding to the opioid epidemic. In a speech to state governors last year, HHS Secretary Alex Azar recognized it’s not the federal government on the front line of the battle.

AZAR: It’s all of you and your law enforcement officers, your teachers, your school counselors, your community leaders, your doctors, EMTs, and nurses and your faith-based partners. We’re dedicated to empowering you and your allies in this fight.

The manual includes practical solutions such as hosting recovery groups, providing childcare and rides to work for recovering addicts, and educating teens about the dangers of opioids and how to avoid them.

The agency also notes that federal funding is available for faith-based efforts to fight substance abuse.

AZAR: Americans of faith have taken a leading role in the compassionate approach that we need to take, that we have to take to this crisis and we’re eager to support their work however we can.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Kristen Flavin.

(Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File) This Jan. 31, 2019 file photo shows a display of fentanyl and meth that was seized by Customs and Border Protection officers over the weekend at the Nogales Port of Entry at a press conference in Nogales, Ariz. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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