The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J.D. Vance’s claim that Biden is targeting ‘MAGA voters’ with fentanyl

(Joe Maiorana/AP)

“If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl? … It does look intentional. It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn’t vote for him and opening up the floodgates to the border is one way to do it.”

— GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance, in an interview with Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit, April 29

Shortly before he won the Republican primary for Ohio’s Senate race, Vance made this startling observation. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and a conservative commentator, argued that President Biden’s border policies had reverberated across the country, allowing not only undocumented immigrants but also deadly drugs to flow into the country — with a nefarious purpose. He suggested that Biden was intentionally allowing drugs such as fentanyl to flood the United States with the intention of trying to kill supporters of former president Donald Trump in the “heartland” of the country.

Whoa, that’s extreme even by today’s standards of political rhetoric. We’re not sure how to even evaluate that. But we can certainly dig into the data to see whether there is even a basis for his claim that Biden has allowed the flow of drugs and deaths to increase.

The Facts

As is often the case, the data with which to make a complete analysis is incomplete — or not yet up to date.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reports monthly data on border seizures of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid drug that can be lethal even in small doses. But by itself, these statistics only tell you about the drugs that are caught, not what might be missed.

Most drugs are seized at ports of entry, according to the Congressional Research Service. It’s unclear how many illicit drugs are smuggled between ports of entry, such as through tunnels or past border barriers.

More seizures could mean Border Patrol is doing a better job. Or they could mean more drugs are flowing into the country. Or the numbers may mean nothing when viewed in isolation. If data on increased seizures was coupled with a decline in drug availability, that would suggest that law enforcement is taking a greater percentage of drugs off the street. But as of 2019, availability of fentanyl remains high, according to the 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, and there is little sign availability had declined since then.

But with those caveats, we find that, according to the monthly reports posted by CBP, 7,267 pounds of fentanyl were seized in 2020, the last year of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, 10,753 pounds were seized in 2021, the first year of the Biden administration. That’s an increase of almost 50 percent in just one year.

During Trump’s four years, however, seizures of fentanyl increased 592 percent, according to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.

“Under the Biden-Harris Administration, DHS has interdicted more drugs and disrupted more smuggling operations than ever before,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “In fiscal year 2021, HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] Special Agents conducted 12,920 criminal arrests and seized over 2.4 million pounds of narcotics, which included 14,530 pounds of fentanyl. This compares to FY 2020 seizures of more than 1.4 million pounds, including 6,105 pounds of fentanyl. In addition, HSI Special Agents seized more than $188 million in total currency and assets. In FY 2021, CBP seized 900,000 pounds of narcotics, a significant increase over the previous year.”

As we said, whether these numbers mean much is open to question. But it’s the best data we have.

“The increase in seizures tells us that law enforcement is making more seizures,” said Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. She said she was not aware of a formula that would extrapolate from seizure size to true drug availability. “In any event,” she added, “changing border policies are not going to stop drug-trafficking organizations from getting drugs into the United States.”

“Fentanyl seizure rates are notoriously sketchy in part because the drug is so compact and easy to smuggle and crackdowns often lead to the substitution effect (which is how cracking down on heroin helped spur fentanyl and its analogs) by incentivizing even more potent analogs like carfentanil (AKA elephant tranquilizer),” Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, said in an email. He added that seizures may have been higher during the coronavirus pandemic because border agents had more time to inspect vehicles.

As for drug overdoses, about 70 percent of which result from opioids such as fentanyl, they increased sharply during the Trump years — in particular, after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which publishes provisional numbers on overdoses, shows that 65,571 people died in the United States of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending January 2017, compared with 94,738 in the 12 months ending January 2021. That’s an increase of 45 percent under Trump.

In Biden’s first year, an estimated 107,622 people died of overdoses in the 12 months ending in December. That’s an increase of 15 percent, but that’s half the rate of increase than in Trump’s last year in office. So there’s little to indicate that Biden’s policies are causing a spike in overdose deaths.

If you isolate the CDC data just for deaths from opioids, they spiked 60 percent under Trump and 15 percent in the first 12 months of Biden’s term.

In other words, Vance is putting the blame on Biden for a problem that got significantly worse under Trump.

Finally, there’s Vance’s assertion that the fentanyl epidemic is aimed at “MAGA voters” in the Midwest, who are typically White and not Hispanic. The data shows this is also bunk. Overdose deaths have increased the most among people of color, with Black men now having the highest rate of overdoses. That’s probably not your typical Trump voter, as Black Americans overwhelmingly voted for Biden.

There were 54.1 fatal drug overdoses for every 100,000 Black men in the United States in 2020, according to Pew Research Center, compared with 44.2 for White men and 27.3 for Hispanic men. Pew said the death rate among Black men more than tripled (213 percent) from 2015 to 2020, compared with a 69 percent increase for White men in the same period.

The raw numbers sometimes disguise these disparities. In 2020, Ohio had more opioid overdose deaths than any state but much larger California — and 80 percent of the opioid deaths were among Whites. But the opioid overdose death rate in the state still was higher for Black people than Whites or Hispanics, according to data published by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Taylor van Kirk, a spokesperson for Vance, sent us a copy of an ABC News report showing that opioid overdose deaths between 2019 and 2021 among teenagers ages 14 to 18 rose more rapidly than the general population, mainly because of fentanyl. The article was based on a research note that analyzed CDC data and was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study showed the rate of deaths (2.36 per 100,000) had jumped sharply to 4.57 per 100,000 in 2020 and to 5.49 per 100,000 in early 2021. But the report only covered the first few months of Biden’s term and, yet again, showed the big jump in deaths occurred under Trump.

The Pinocchio Test

In just about every way, Vance’s outrage at Biden is misplaced. Fentanyl seizures have increased, not fallen, under Biden. Overdose deaths jumped sharply under Trump. As for Trump voters being supposedly targeted, people of color die at a higher rate from opioids than Whites.

It’s bad enough to suggest that the president is deliberately trying to kill off Trump voters with illicit drugs. But it’s especially appalling to make such hyperbolic claims based on zero facts.

Vance earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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