The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Only one thing will solve the fentanyl crisis

Hundreds of pounds of fentanyl and meth seized near Ensenada in October. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
7 min

Sam Quinones is the author of four books, two about Mexico and two about the American drug addiction epidemic, including “The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth.”

To anyone paying attention to the overdose crisis in the United States, it should be clear that the country no longer faces only a drug problem. It faces a national poisoning.

The supplies of fentanyl and methamphetamine here have surpassed anything previously imaginable. These drugs come largely through a single source — Mexican traffickers — and, since 2019, have covered the United States. Drug use in America used to come in 10- or 15-year cycles — alternating between stimulants and depressants. Supplies of these drugs have changed that; now it’s stimulants (meth) and depressants (fentanyl) together, nationwide.

But this needn’t remain an intractable crisis. It is one the U.S. and Mexican governments have the ability to address — if they would commit to sustained engagement and collaborative enforcement.

The irony is that fentanyl and meth — synthetics produced in clandestine labs — make Mexican traffickers more vulnerable than ever to aggressive, binational law enforcement. Mexico-based traffickers no longer depend on drugs grown across the mountainous expanses of their country. For their profits, they rely on ingredient chemicals, many from China, coming into a handful of shipping ports and airports — a vulnerability easier for modern and collaborative law enforcement to attack.

Relations between the United States and Mexico are beset by a history of predation, distrust, ignorance and corruption, which would shadow any alliance between the two countries. But it is hard to believe that two nations that have negotiated complex free-trade agreements cannot come to some deeper collaboration on drugs, upheld across presidential administrations and sustained despite distracting conflicts elsewhere in the world.

When I was living in Mexico as an independent journalist in the early 2000s, Joe Biden visited the country as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He displayed a nuanced knowledge of Mexico that I wasn’t used to hearing from an elected U.S. official. I recall him chatting with reporters about the country’s then-infant democracy and the importance of cultivating a new relationship with the country.

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During those same years, I watched Andrés Manuel López Obrador — or AMLO, as he’s known — while he was mayor of Mexico City. Back then, he seemed clear, articulate and realistic about corruption and its effects on the people of his country.

So I did not expect to see the presidential administrations of both men wither into neglect and capitulation, respectively, on this issue, with such catastrophic consequences.

Cartel Rx: How the U.S. lost a key ally in Mexico as fentanyl took off

Fentanyl has been spreading across the United States for close to a decade and now fuels a record number of drug-related deaths; two-thirds of the 107,000 overdose deaths in 2021 involved fentanyl or synthetic opioids like it. My reporting shows, furthermore, that the meth coming out of Mexico is creating harrowing symptoms of mental illness — because of chemicals in the mix or, perhaps most likely, because of the unprecedented potency with which it is hitting U.S. streets. Meth from Mexico is now a driver of mental illness and homelessness in many parts of the United States.

Agents seized more than 50 million fentanyl-laced pills in 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced in December, and over 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder — enough to kill a quarter of the world’s entire population. Michael Humphries, Customs and Border Patrol’s chief of the port of entry in Nogales, Ariz., tweeted that in the three months of the fiscal year beginning in October, seizures had “already surpassed the total amount of fentanyl seized throughout all of [the previous fiscal year], which was already a record year.”

As many drug counselors will tell you: Unlike with heroin, there is no such thing as a long-term street-fentanyl user. They all die.

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Meanwhile, the quantities of meth coming out of Mexico, spurred by easy access to ingredients from world chemical markets, have driven prices for the drug to historic lows, according to law enforcement sources I’ve interviewed, and made it more accessible than ever. In Fresno, Calif., a wholesale pound of meth went for $20,000 in 2008; now it goes for $800. In Nashville six years ago, a pound wholesale sold for $16,000; today, it’s $2,000.

The trafficking world’s shift to synthetics is all about supply creating demand. Many towns and counties are at the mercy of this supply. Money dislodged from drug companies in lawsuits over their role in creating the nation’s opioid epidemic now risks being squandered on stopgap measures required by the urgency of combating these supplies — rather than being invested in the longer-term initiatives that might fortify communities to help people with addictions successfully recover.

There is nothing preordained about this situation. Rather, it is born of the impunity traffickers enjoy, which stems from deep and tangled corruption within Mexico combined with a relentless flow of guns, primarily assault weapons, easily bought in the United States and smuggled south.

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In Mexico, the cost of that corruption is the annual slaughter of the country’s citizens and the corrosion of its civic institutions. In the United States, the price of those guns is measured in cheap and potent meth and fentanyl, available everywhere, deranging and killing Americans.

Mexican drug traffickers are technically not terrorists; they are criminal capitalists, albeit with an increasingly global vision. But the drugs and assault weapons that enable them are wreaking a more complete devastation in Mexico and the United States than any ideological terrorist could.

In Mexico years ago, I took a class from a prominent historian who insisted that his country would respond eagerly to U.S. overtures for collaboration on many issues — including drugs and corruption — provided they were respectful and supported by sustained attention from the larger neighbor. I came to believe that was true.

Yet the United States has never displayed this kind of lasting interest, even though a strong relationship between the two countries is as important as any America has with China or Taiwan, Russia or Ukraine, or its NATO allies.

This must change. The meeting in Mexico City earlier this year between López Obrador and President Biden was a good first step. But this kind of summit needs to happen so commonly that it’s barely news. Even more important are meetings between cabinet and mid-level officials, as well as elected officials, across the two governments.

Many U.S. communities have found that local collaboration — involving a wide range of groups in anti-drug task forces, teaming up social workers and police, rethinking jail as a place of recovery — sparks synergies that lead to a more unified defense.

I believe this can be true of Mexico and the United States. How about starting with a sustained attempt to gain control of and regulate the supply of chemicals entering Mexican ports? How about a far more aggressive approach to stopping weapons heading south into Mexico?

These days, there’s a saying on U.S. streets: “Fentanyl changes everything.” It refers to illicit fentanyl’s transformative effect on drug production, smuggling, addiction, overdose and treatment. But my hope is that it will also change relations between the United States and Mexico — for the sake of people on both sides of the border.