The forgotten epidemic in 2020: The Opioid overdose crisis

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

“Fifteen days to flatten the curve.” “Stay home, save lives.” If these slogans sound familiar, it’s because it was the language the government centered its response around to fighting the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, such slogans shifted our mindsets and government resources to tackle this crisis. However, because of this misguided shift in priorities, it ultimately became the final nail in the coffin for an epidemic that has long plagued our nation — the drug overdose crisis

According to new CDC statistics released last week, 2020 saw the sharpest increase in overdose death ever recorded in at least 30 years. More than 93,000 Americans died of overdoses between December 2019 and December 2020. There were more than 250 drug overdose deaths a day, or about 11 people died each hour, on average.

As the government was center-focused on fighting the COVID pandemic, along with all the 2020 craziness from the protests, riots, and election year madness, those individuals dealing with drug addictions who needed help were faced with a government turning its backs on them. The government “slogans” caused a nation to adopt to a new way of life. We were forced into isolation of quarantine; but such government responses only added fuel to an already serious overdose crisis. Those catchy slogans forced people to deal with the stress caused from the government actions: social isolation, loss of livelihood due to financial stress and mental stress, instability, and for many, the loss of loved ones. For those battling drug addictions, it caused overlapping traumas to deal with. Yet they couldn’t find the typical coping mechanisms that were once widely available, as the government did nothing to help prevent the heartbreaking death numbers we see today.

In New York, drug overdose deaths last year rose by more than 27 percent. This was especially troubling for me as a New York State legislator at the time. I represented Nassau and Suffolk County —two counties that ranked at the top in overdose deaths in the state of New York according to the 2020 New York State Annual Opioid Report. Based on previous numbers and the current trends, I expect 2021 to be bad in New York, especially in Long Island, if not worse.

During my tenure as a New York State Assemblyman, I championed the “Death by Dealer” statute that I co-sponsored which would charge an individual with homicide if he or she illegally sells an opiate-controlled substance to a person who later dies from its use. Unfortunately, the New York Senate and Assembly failed to advance this necessary legislation. Now with the nation’s borders wide open, the illegal drug supply has restarted after being disrupted, thus becoming more predictable of what comes next.

The main driver that has played a surge in overdose drug deaths is fentanyl, one of the most powerful and potentially deadly synthetic opioids that has snuck into the drug supply in recent years. Originally, most of the fentanyl flooding our nation was coming from China via mail.

After Congress through bipartisan efforts passed Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Preventions, drug traffickers got wiser and are now shipping these lethal drugs through our southern border.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, now Mexican cartels are responsible for supplying deadly fentanyl that is shipped or smuggled into the U.S. market.

Recent data by U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported Friday showed a tremendous increase in seizures of fentanyl at the border. In the last six months alone, CBP has seized over 8,500 pounds of fentanyl — this is enough to kill nearly 2 billion people or the entire United States population more than four times over. This six-month total is more than all of last year, and CBP has warned a vast majority of types of drugs are easily crossing our borders to get in without being stopped.

The Biden administration’s radical border policy changes on the first day has caused an open wide southern border that easier for the drug cartels to smuggle more unlawful migrants and lethal substances. This in turn has now led to an increase supply of deadly fentanyl, which basically translates to more drugs in our communities at a much lower street value price.

Drug addiction is not a new epidemic to the United States. Yet, as a nation, the government seem to be horribly inept at preventing overdose deaths. In 2020, out of the nearly 93,000 overdose deaths, more than half of those involved fentanyl, with some reportedly found laced with other drugs, including the likes of cocaine, crystal meth or heroin. This is a big reason why stopping the flow fentanyl from entering our communities is a matter of life or death.

Government cannot fail to deter those who peddle poison in our communities. Such failure results in innocent lives being lost. To that end, here are four steps both State and Federal government should and need take to address what is needed to be done to stop this crisis before it becomes deadly.

First, and most importantly, the Biden Administration needs to finalize the construction to the already funded border wall to help stop the surge of drug flowing at the border. They also should prioritize resources funding for our Border Patrol to be able to hire more agents, to help overworked law enforcement officers crack down on drug smugglers.

Second, lawmakers both on state and federal level need to stop playing politics when it comes to prioritizing the health, wellbeing, and safety of ourselves, our families, and our communities.

These alarming numbers should be a bipartisan issue that should have a heavy focus in order to prevent unnecessary deaths.

Third, on the local level, New York lawmakers need to make sure that the same people who got those leaders elected and want help can get it easily without any red tapes. In New York, we had the space for people to get help but bureaucrats chose not to. Additionally, evidence-based treatment is one of the key strategies in addressing such a crisis.

Finally, on the Federal level, Congress needs to label Mexican and Chinese drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) for heroin and fentanyl respectively.

I would like to think that we will learn from these mistakes. That we, as a country, will come together and agree that there is no reason that 93,000 people need to die by overdose. We know what it takes to fix this situation. We have the means to fight this situation before it becomes deadly. But are those very same leaders ready to commit now to putting actions to our words to make sure 2021 numbers do not beat 2020’s record? The consequences of their actions today will have ramifications for generations to come.

Mike LiPetri
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