US: Jelly Roll urged Congress to crack down on fentanyl. That’s harder than it sounds.

Rapper and singer Jelly Roll made an impassioned plea to Congress this week in support of a proposed bill to crack down on fentanyl, but experts and advocates say the growing crisis of fentanyl overdose deaths in the U.S. is a complicated problem to solve.

Deaths blamed on fentanyl have exploded over the last decade as the synthetic opioid has reached virtually every corner of the country, and officials have called for greater action to both curb the flow of illegally manufactured fentanyl smuggled into the U.S., and address addiction.

The country music star spoke to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Thursday about his history with drug dealing and going to jail, and shared about what has become a very American experience: knowing someone who has died of a fentanyl overdose.

“It’s time for us to be proactive and not reactive,” Jason DeFord, who is known as Jelly Roll, said. “Fentanyl transcends partisanship and ideology.”

Experts and lawmakers across the aisle agree the drug is a deadly danger, but making meaningful strides in saving Americans is even harder than many people realize.

“We have very weak tools for dealing with this,” Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy and criminology at the University of Maryland who has published research on drug trafficking policy and the rise of fentanyl, told USA TODAY.

What is the fentanyl crisis?

Officials across the country have become growingly alarmed with an increase in deaths attributed to fentanyl overdoses over the last decade. In 2021, some 107,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses, with over 65% of those deaths caused by fentanyl.

Many experts say the danger of fentanyl is that it is much stronger in smaller amounts than other drugs, and is often mixed with other drugs or included in counterfeit products meant to look like other drugs.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, and its proliferation in the U.S. starts with precursor chemicals that are made in China and turned into fentanyl mostly in Mexico before it is smuggled into the country. About a decade ago, as authorities began cracking down on prescriptions of opioid painkillers linked to soaring deaths at the time, fentanyl emerged and rapidly spread across the country.

The CDC has been documenting a drastic increase in overdose deaths since 2014 when illegally manufactured fentanyl came on the scene. In the 12-month period ending in July 2018, there were over 30,000 American deaths from overdoses due to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Five years later, that number more than doubled to 74,000, according to provisional data.

“We have not by any means seen the end of this. We have every reason to think that this will get worse,” Reuter said.

Dr. David Goodman-Meza, an infectious disease and addiction doctor at UCLA, said virtually everyone he treats for substance use disorders is using fentanyl, whether knowingly or not, while just five or six years ago, “black tar” heroin was the dominant drug.

“Anything that you take that you did not get directly from a U.S. pharmacy should be considered to be fentanyl if not proven otherwise,” he told USA TODAY.

The Drug Enforcement Administration warns that counterfeit prescription drugs like Adderall and oxycodone often contain potentially lethal doses of fentanyl, which can be unknown to an unsuspecting consumer. Prosecutors have brought charges against dealers who sell counterfeit pills tainted with fentanyl through Snapchat and other social media apps, which have lead to the overdose deaths of teenagers who thought they were buying Percocet.

“It is the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced,” Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Anne Milgram said in a Senate hearing last year.

“Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison.”Fentanyl is 20 to 25 times more potent than heroin, but people who have been using drugs for years are also building up tolerances and using a lot more of it than they ever did heroin, Reuter said.

What is the bill Jelly Roll testified about?

The FEND (Fentanyl Eradication and Narcotics Deterrence) Off Fentanyl Act is a bipartisan bill that focuses on disrupting the supply of fentanyl from chemical suppliers in China and drug cartels in Mexico. It would levy sanctions on cartel leaders and money launderers involved in trafficking fentanyl.

The bill also would direct funds from the seized property of traffickers toward more law enforcement efforts, and build on reporting efforts about U.S. government actions to combat fentanyl. It represents an approach to the overdose crisis that focuses on disrupting the international supply chain, Reuter told USA TODAY. He thinks officials shouldn’t expect it to have much of an impact.

“There’s not much money involved in fentanyl production trade, and the money laundering techniques are particularly difficult ones to to catch,” Reuter said.

Many advocates also argue focusing on the supply of fentanyl ignores the problem of demand within the U.S. and urge for more money to go toward addiction treatment and harm reduction efforts like distributing naloxone, which is used to reverse an opioid overdose.

“I encourage y’all to take it a step further,” Jelly Roll told lawmakers.

How the country is dealing with fentanyl deaths

The last several years has seen a dramatic shift in public policy approach to overdose deaths, Reuter said, from the “war on drugs” approach that focused on enforcement and locking up suppliers to an emphasis on treatment. Meanwhile, there’s been an increased international effort to prevent illicit drugs from being made in the first place.

President Joe Biden’s administration has placed a large emphasis on disrupting the supply and flow into the U.S. In November, China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to direct Chinese chemical companies to curtail shipments of fentanyl precursor components to Latin America in an effort to reduce the flow of fentanyl into the U.S.

Last April, the White House said the Biden administration was cracking down on the production, sale and trafficking of fentanyl in addition to building on public health initiatives and seizing record amounts of fentanyl at the border.

“These unprecedented efforts have contributed to the year-long flatlining in the national overdose death rate,” said Dr. Gupta, Director of National Drug Control Policy.

Some experts are skeptical that the administration’s efforts are disrupting the supply, in part because there could be large supplies already in Mexico – and it would not be difficult for cartels to start supplying another even more lethal drug.

‘Massive demand’ an ongoing problem

Jelly Roll urged the passage of the FEND Off Fentanyl Act, but said if leaders don’t also take steps to “stop the demand, we are gonna spin our tires in the mud.”

Winifred Tate, an anthropology professor and director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, told USA TODAY that if the intent of legislation is to reduce U.S. fentanyl overdose deaths, then it needs to focus on the people who are actually dying.

The shift toward treating addiction to opioids as a public health issue has been positive, but a strict prohibitive and enforcement strategy is in stark opposition to that messaging, Tate said: “If we’re trying to stop people from dying from deaths caused by the drugs they’re taking, you have to help people who are using those drugs.”

Tate said people need access to testing supplies so people know what drugs they’re taking, harm reduction supplies like naloxone, and environments where they are safe while using drugs.

Access to effective, dignified and evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders, including through medication, is the No. 1 way to make a difference at the individual level, Goodman-Meza said.

“We’ve tried this strategy focusing on the supply for more than 50 years. The focus has really gotten us to where we are at now,” Goodman-Meza said. “The reason we have a supply is because we have a massive demand.”

States’ scattered approaches to fentanyl deaths

On the local level, states have introduced a patchwork of laws and strategies to curb the devastation fentanyl deaths have brought to communities and several are considering fentanyl in their 2024 legislative agendas.

In Washington state, one bill would require all school districts make naloxone available in high schools, and another would bring education about fentanyl into K-12 public schools. Meanwhile, Republicans in the state have proposed enhanced penalties for the distribution of fentanyl.

“Just because we increasingly recognize that drug use is a health issue, more so than a criminal one, surely we can recognize that the manufacture and distribution of these deadly drugs, the people who do that do not deserve the same open hand,” House Republican Leader Rep. Drew Stokesbary said.

In West Virginia, lawmakers are hoping to introduce new measures after a bill failed to pass last year that would upgrade the distribution of fentanyl from a misdemeanor to a felony.

“Pushers of fentanyl are murderers,” House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw said.

Tate said cracking down on local-level dealers risks criminalizing marginalized people who are also just selling drugs to support their own addictions. She said Maine is one of the states dedicated to a public health approach, and has increased access to naloxone, passed a strong Good Samaritan law that protects someone who reports an opioid overdose and is considering legislation to fund receiving centers in every county for people who need treatment and decriminalize small amounts of certain drugs.

“Making sure that people know what they’re taking … and providing public health and harm reduction services to people who need it. That’s how you stop people from dying,” Tate said.

By Jeanine Santucci, USA Today

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