Feds Must Do More to Fight Fentanyl, Senators Say

Feds Must Do More to Fight Fentanyl, Senators Say

July 27, 2022 0 By Jennifer Walker

WASHINGTON — The federal government is not doing enough to lessen the fentanyl overdose crisis, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Tuesday.

“We have to face the very unpleasant truth that what we’re doing is not working,” Collins, a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP), said at a hearing on “Fighting Fentanyl: The Federal Response to a Growing Crisis.”

“The data overwhelmingly demonstrate [that], whether you look at national data, or data from the state of Maine,” she noted. For example, Maine lost a “record high” 627 residents to drug overdoses in 2021, she added. “Last year, fentanyl was involved in 77% of deadly overdoses in Maine. That’s a dramatic increase.”

“In 2021, Maine drug enforcement agencies seized more than 10,000 g of fentanyl; that’s a 67% increase, but [law enforcement officers] tell me they could not possibly keep up — they’re overwhelmed — and that Maine’s overdose crisis is primarily driven by the increased supply of illicit fentanyl originating in China,” Collins continued.

“I’ve been to the border with Mexico,” she said. “I’ve talked with the border patrol officers out on their midnight shift, and they’ve expressed such frustration that they have had to divert their resources to handling the tremendous influx of people crossing the border, rather than focusing on illicit drug interdiction. So I cannot help but conclude that our inability to secure the border has an adverse impact and contributes directly to our inability to stop the flow of drugs into this country.”

In response to a question from Collins, Kemp Chester, senior policy advisor for supply reduction and international relations at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said, “What we have to do is very quickly identify when we have new vulnerabilities, when the traffickers have changed the way that they do business, and close those gaps and vulnerabilities as quickly as we possibly can. And that’s what we’re in the process of doing right now.”

Other committee Republicans also focused on drug interdiction at the border. “We have to recognize that a policy at the border which has been feckless and ineffective … not just allows people to come here who are illegal immigrants — it allows drugs to come across as well,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, MD (R-La.). “We’ve got to control that border. If there’s a message I wish the administration to get, it’s use your tools to control it.”

But Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said it’s not just borders that the government should look at when it comes to interdiction. “Don’t forget about airports” and other ports of entry, he said. “The screening — or lack thereof — that is done at our ports should alarm all of us … the United States must adopt 100% screening into the United States with commercial goods and with passenger traffic at all of our ports of entry. Only then will we start to understand how these cartels and other entities are throwing products at the problem. I hope that we can at least come together there and work together to get something done.”

Luján also expressed concern about access to substance use disorder treatment, particularly for Native Americans. “According to the CDC, only about one in every 10 American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic people with substance use disorder reported receiving treatment,” he said. “About 70% of the 2 million folks across the country that are not getting any treatment are predominantly in rural and Native American communities, and in Hispanic communities, Black communities, and other communities of color as well. I appreciate that there’s more attention being brought to these issues, but again, what’s been happening? The data shows where this is occurring, and there’s still no response.”

Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, PhD, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), said her agency is “taking a multi-level approach; certainly there is quite a bit of work underway to increase access to medication-assisted treatment as well as other vital prevention and recovery services.”

In particular, “there are a range of services and supports available across the country to help individuals that are struggling with opioids, including the dissemination of fentanyl test strips, which allow for the testing of substances and allow for the testing of the presence of fentanyl,” she said. Giving out the test strips is also an opportunity for health workers to connect people to substance abuse treatment, she added.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) asked about “pyro” (N-Pyrrolidino etonitazene), a new drug circulating in his state that is reportedly 10 times stronger than fentanyl. He asked Chester where such drugs come from and what the plans were to intercept their supply routes.

Chester said such drugs are becoming more prominent for two reasons. “Number one, one of the best accelerants for the production of a new drug is action taken against an existing one,” he said. “These are profit-seeking enterprises that have very smart chemists who want to market new substances; they post them on the internet or on social media for availability and get people to be on them.”

They also use “product placement” advertising, he noted. “They have the available precursor chemicals; they have a chemical formulation they can get on and they advertise it as having a certain qualitative effect on the body.”

To fight against these new drugs, the ONDCP is using its High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program. “That brings together drug intelligence officers and public health individuals in order to be able to better understand the environment and fight those new and emerging threats like the one that you just mentioned, to be able to take action on them,” Chester said.

  • author['full_name']

    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow