The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wage war on fentanyl or decriminalize? We must find a way to combat it.

Illicit fentanyl collected by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, seen in April. (Alameda County Sheriff's Office/AP)

The letter to President Biden signed by 18 attorneys general called for an admittedly “unorthodox” solution to the nation’s fentanyl crisis.

“We ask that you consider classifying illegal fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction,” they wrote in September. “Indeed, given fentanyl’s lethality, the amounts being interdicted and seized are inconsistent with what one would expect from drug trafficking activity and are indicative of either purposeful conspiracy to murder Americans or an effort to stockpile a dangerous chemical weapon.”

The signatories included attorneys general from states hardest hit by fentanyl overdose deaths — including Florida, Texas, Kentucky and Connecticut. Attorneys General Jason S. Miyares (R) of Virginia and Patrick Morrisey (R) of West Virginia are also part of the group.

With more than 71,000 fentanyl overdose deaths in the United States last year, it is understandable that some would feel that the country was under a kind of chemical attack. But by whom?

In Hartford, Conn., this year, police found 100 bags of fentanyl in the bedroom of a 13-year-old boy who suffered a fatal fentanyl overdose at school. Police found an additional 60 bags of highly potent fentanyl hidden in areas throughout his school.

Had those drugs made it into the student population, there would have been mass casualties. The boy’s overdose death alerted school officials to the threat. Mercifully. But how would calling the drugs WMDs have stopped the boy from getting them?

According to the attorneys general, designating the synthetic opioid as a WMD would get the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security more involved. “Thinking about curbing the problem in different, new ways may disrupt what the foreign companies and drug cartels involved are doing or at least make it more expensive or difficult,” the group wrote.

Disrupting the cartels, making the drugs more expensive or, supposedly, more difficult to obtain — that’s been the U.S. policy all along. It’s called the “war on drugs,” and if we have learned anything it’s that disrupting drug supply lines while doing nothing about reducing demand creates only chaos and violence, making more toxic products available at cheaper prices.

That’s how cocaine powder became a bloody crack trade, how a crackdown on opioid prescription pills became a burgeoning heroin street market, and a subsequent crackdown on heroin resulted in the enhanced manufacturing of deadly synthetic fentanyl. Now the opioid trade needs no agricultural expertise at all, just a batch of chemicals that a high school dropout can prepare to inadvertently fatal effects. And there is practically no way to stop it.

Enter the advocates for drug decriminalization.

In 2021, a coalition of the District’s liberal groups, called DecrimPovertyDC, drew up the “District of Columbia Drug Policy Reform Act,” which calls for decriminalizing the possession of any drug if it’s for personal use and vacating past convictions for such offenses. It would also create a variety of services, such as a crisis-response system within the Department of Health designed for drug-related emergencies, and 24/7 harm-reduction centers where individuals could safely use under the supervision of trained providers equipped with overdose medication and sterile syringes.

Proponents hope that the reform measure will be taken up by the D.C. Council in 2023.

According to DecrimPovertyDC, research shows that criminalizing drug use leads to cultural stigma and decreases public support for policies aimed at solving the opioid crisis “by placing blame for drug use on the individual rather than the social factors like poverty, structural racism, and poor public health infrastructure.”

As Shane Sullivan, a DecrimPovertyDC organizer, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post in February: “Despite bipartisan agreement that the so-called drug war is a failure, we continue its barbaric practice of caging people for their drug use and target those most marginalized. … How can we expect people who are actively using drugs to speak honestly with medical providers or loved ones about their use when often that use is a felony charge?”

Most consequentially, they noted, “We also need to begin a national conversation about implementing a safe supply of drugs, as decriminalization alone won’t end the increasingly toxic drug market. … The concept of a safe supply seems ‘radical’ only because of decades of drug war propaganda that has demonized certain classes of drugs while obfuscating the potential harms of alcohol.”

Safe supply could conceivably work, but as Oregon has shown two years after decriminalizing drugs, treatment programs must be up and running — and drug addicts incentivized to get help.

Otherwise, we’re likely to see drug addiction skyrocket, as it has in Oregon.

“If there is no formal or informal pressure on addicted people to seek treatment and recovery and thereby stop using drugs, we should expect continuing high rates of drug use, addiction and attendant harm,” said Keith Humphreys, an addiction researcher and professor at Stanford University and former senior adviser in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Nathan Manning, a Republican state senator in Ohio, is sponsoring legislation to make it clear that materials used to test drugs for fentanyl are legal. Fentanyl strips, as they are called, can help drug users determine if their supply is untainted; but some say they encourage criminal activity. “It’s a fine line to help people and try to get people clean, and at the same time incarcerate and get the drug dealers off the streets,” he says.

We could follow the path of the attorneys general, which would probably lead to invading Mexico in search of WMD pill presses. We could decriminalize more hard drugs and hope that the addicts get treatment before they OD.

Neither of these extreme approaches is likely to take hold, but we need to keep thinking about dramatic interventions to this deadly problem.

Or we could go on with business as usual, and wait for the next 13-year-old fentanyl dealer to bring a stash to school.

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