The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Fentanyl brings death and despair on a shocking scale

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 2003, U.S. forces captured deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Saddam was caught hiding in a “spider hole” in Ad Dawr, not far from his hometown of Tikrit.

The big idea

Fentanyl brings death and despair on a shocking scale

Fentanyl. If you’re a teen, or the parent of a teen, or just keep up with local or national news, you’ve heard about this lab-cooked drug that is killing Americans in shocking numbers. “Cartel Rx” is The Washington Post’s new, seven-part investigative look at its role in the opioid crisis.

It’s a calamity that has posed one of the most significant public-policy challenges in decades, a deadly and destructive epidemic that has defied government attempts to find a solution. And now my colleagues are breaking down the who, what, where, when, how and why of it.

The best journalism about the opioid crisis blends the startling facts and figures with the heartbreaking personal stories. One example from my home state: Kate O’Neill’s emotional and educational series for Seven Days VT back in 2019, triggered by her sister’s fatal overdose.

Cartel Rx does the same. Wrenching personal stories really bring home the reality behind the numbers. The clinical explanation for the fentanyl boom — I’ll oversimplify it as Mexican cartels filling voracious American demand no longer met by domestic opioid makers — comes to life.

Chilling data

But let’s talk about the numbers, because the series’ inaugural installment, from my colleagues Nick Miroff, Scott Higham, Steven Rich, Salwan Georges and Erin Patrick O'Connor, collects facts and figures in one place in a way that is startling, perhaps overwhelming.

“During the past seven years, as soaring quantities of fentanyl flooded into the United States, strategic blunders and cascading mistakes by successive U.S. administrations allowed the most lethal drug crisis in American history to become significantly worse, a Washington Post investigation has found,” they wrote.

  • Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Post analysis. More than car accidents, suicides, or gun violence.
  • More than 9 million Americans “misused opioids” in 2020, according to the latest estimates by the Department of Health and Human Services. But HHS doesn’t have figures for fentanyl.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cannot track overdose deaths in real-time. Its published data is one year behind. CDC’s provisional tally for 2021 set the overall number of drug overdoses at 107,622, two thirds of those from fentanyl.
  • “From 2019 to 2021, fatal overdoses surged 94 percent, and an estimated 196 Americans are now dying each day from the drug — the equivalent of a fully loaded Boeing 757-200 crashing and killing everyone on board.”
  • San Diego County, which my colleagues call “ground zero” for fentanyl smuggling into the United States, had 92 deaths tied to fentanyl in 2018, when it set up a special multiagency task force to deal with the drug. There were 814 last year.

Or how about this: “Since July, border seizures of fentanyl have averaged 2,200 pounds a month, meaning U.S. authorities are confiscating more fentanyl in a single month than they did during all of 2018. Federal officials estimate they are capturing 5 to 10 percent of the fentanyl crossing from Mexico, but they acknowledge it could be less.”

My colleagues carefully collected many different ways the federal government has failed. Read the whole thing, as they say. But consider this stat: Over the past decade, the Drug Enforcement Administration shed 1,300 staff, including 700 agents, and has more than 800 vacancies today.

U.S.-Mexico cooperation

In another installment, about a Mexican admiral who worked closely with Americans to combat drug trafficking (and drug traffickers), my colleagues Mary Beth Sheridan and Nick Miroff included this unsettling piece of data:

“U.S. law enforcement agencies have confiscated more than 45,300 pounds of fentanyl through the first 11 months of this year, up from 5,800 pounds in 2018, according to a Post analysis of the latest government data. In November, U.S. authorities seized 2,900 pounds at the southern border, the highest monthly total ever.”

Mary Beth and Nick chronicle the ups and many, many downs of U.S.-Mexico cooperation to fight drugs smuggling, and the role of Adm. Marco Antonio Ortega Siu — nicknamed El Águila, The Eagle.

If the personal stories breathe life into this chronicle of the crisis, the numbers bring home a scale that will leave you winded. You can follow all of “Cartel Rx” here.


See an important political story that doesn’t quite fit traditional politics coverage? Flag it for us here.

What’s happening now

Biden to sign landmark bill to protect same-sex, interracial marriages

“President Biden is slated to sign the Respect for Marriage Act into law Tuesday afternoon, granting federal protections to same-sex and interracial couples, and marking a milestone in the decades-long fight for marriage equality,” Amy B Wang reports.

Follow along with Post Politics Now for live updates

Prices cooled last month, raising hopes that inflation is easing

Data released Tuesday morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that prices rose 7.1 percent in November compared with last year, the smallest year-over-year increase since last December. Prices also climbed 0.1 percent over October, beating analysts’ expectations. And a measure known as “core inflation,” which strips out volatile categories like food and energy, rose 0.2 percent — the smallest increase since August 2021,” Rachel Siegel reports.

Fusion breakthrough sparks hope of unlimited clean power

Federal scientists announced Tuesday that they have created the first nuclear fusion reaction that generated more energy than it took to produce, a major advancement in the worldwide quest for a new source of abundant, clean energy,” Evan Halper and Joel Achenbach report.

Federal prosecutors, SEC unveil charges against Sam Bankman-Fried

Federal prosecutors charged Sam Bankman-Fried with several counts of fraud on Tuesday, just hours after the Securities and Exchange Commission accused the disgraced FTX founder of orchestrating a scheme to defraud investors,” Tory Newmyer reports.

“Meanwhile, the House Financial Services Committee is set to forge ahead with a hearing into the cryptocurrency exchange’s recent implosion despite the arrest Monday night of Bankman-Fried, its star witness, who was taken into custody in the Bahamas after U.S. officials requested his extradition.”

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Cartel RX

A DEA agent tracked the source of fentanyl in Mormon country — a Mexican cartel

“Mexican criminal groups had become experts in producing fentanyl and meth across the border. Now, [Brady Wilson] knew, they were honing their role in retail distribution in the United States, where synthetics had reshaped the geography of drug demand. There was money to be made in places like St. George, [Utah]” Kevin Sieff reports.

More from the series: They call him the Eagle: How the U.S. lost a key ally in Mexico as fentanyl took off

FTX’s Bahamas crypto empire: Stimulants, subterfuge and a spectacular collapse

When Bankman-Fried and his band of crypto risk-takers moved to the Bahamas last year in a blitz of extravagant spending, they promised to remake the island paradise into a global capital of the new financial elite. Some Bahamians said they felt lucky to have an opportunity to work so close to a superstar,” Tim Craig, Drew Harwell and Nitasha Tiku report.

Instead, Bankman-Fried stepped down as FTX’s CEO earlier this month after presiding over one of the fastest meltdowns of wealth in modern history. FTX, valued earlier this year at $32 billion, has been declared bankrupt, and his $16 billion personal fortune nosedived to zero in less than a week.”

… and beyond

Asylum seekers, migrants cross en masse at Texas-Mexico border as Title 42 nears end

Officials have seen an influx of thousands of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border with the Title 42 restriction scheduled to end on Dec. 21. Immigration experts have said the decision to end the policy could have triggered the surge in asylum-seeking migrants who were released by federal immigration authorities in border state communities,” Lauren Villagran reports for the El Paso Times.

The secret lives of MI6’s top female spies

“Kathy is one of four directors-general at SIS, each of whom reports to the chief, known as ‘C’. For the first time, three of them are women. They work in the most important and rapidly evolving areas of spycraft. Kathy is director of operations. Rebecca is the chief’s deputy, who oversees strategy. The most storied MI6 job of all belongs to Ada, who is the head of technology, known as ‘Q’ after James Bond’s mastermind gadgeteer. I have spent six months interviewing them about how they reached the top in a traditionally male career and trying to understand what the life of a female spy is really like,Helen Warrell writes for the Financial Times.

The Biden agenda

Biden scrambles to keep African nations in anti-Russian coalition

“With more than 40 African leaders visiting Washington this week, President Biden has a rare opportunity to court a group of nations that have been ambivalent about, and increasingly frustrated by, his global effort to rally support behind Ukraine and mount a unified front against Russia,” Yasmeen Abutaleb and Missy Ryan report.

Biden planning multi-country trip to Africa next year

President Biden is planning a multi-country trip to Africa next year, with an announcement expected to be made at this week’s U.S.-Africa summit,” two sources familiar with the plans told Axios’s Dave Lawler and Hans Nichols.

Biden plays nice with equatorial Guinea to spoil China’s Atlantic ambitions

“Over the past year, the Biden administration has dispatched a stream of high-level officials to a small coastal country in Central Africa in a quiet campaign to convince the world’s longest-serving dictator to start shedding his ties to China. That effort will be put to the test this week, when President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea will attend President Joe Biden’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington,” Robbie Gramer, Amy Mackinnon and Jack Detsch report for Foreign Policy.

U.S. Supreme Court takes up second Biden appeal in student debt plan fight

“The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear President Joe Biden’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that found his plan to cancel billions of dollars in student debt unlawful, taking up the matter alongside another challenge to the policy that the justices are due to hear in the coming months,” Reuters’s Andrew Chung reports.

Where officials are seizing fentanyl, visualized

“With the explosion of fentanyl, which can be pressed into tiny counterfeit pills or mixed into other drugs like cocaine and heroin, the question of how the products arrive at their final destination is of urgent importance. More Americans are dying of drug overdoses than ever before. The tentacles of Mexican criminal organizations are lengthening in the United States, their distribution methods becoming more efficient as their drugs become more dangerous,Kevin Sieff reports.

Hot on the left

Democratic senators sidestep Arizona race after Sinema leaves their party

“Democratic senators from across the political spectrum have sidestepped the question of whether they would support Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) if she runs for reelection — underscoring how her surprise decision to leave the Democratic Party has thrust Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his colleagues into a tough spot,” Liz Goodwin reports.

Hot on the right

Trump in trouble: Republican support for his 2024 bid falls amid political, legal setbacks

“By 2-1, GOP and GOP-leaning voters now say they want Trump’s policies but a different standard-bearer to carry them. While 31% want the former president to run, 61% prefer some other Republican nominee who would continue the policies Trump has pursued,” USA Today’s Susan Page reports.

Today in Washington

At 3:30 p.m., Biden will sign the Respect for Marriage Act into law on the South Lawn, with first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff attending.

In closing


White Christmas odds are a bit higher than normal this year in D.C.

Historical odds of having measurable snow on the ground Christmas morning aren’t even 10 percent. Lately, the weather has been abnormally warm much more often than snowy,” Ian Livingston reports.

“But the chance of a white Christmas appears to be higher this year. The major storm sweeping across the country is setting up a pattern realignment that should promote a cold and possibly stormy week leading up to Christmas. The trend toward colder and stormier weather has already begun.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.