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Fentanyl: Can the War on Drugs Be Won?

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Fentanyl: Can the War on Drugs Be Won?

America has been fighting the spread of drugs for over 50 years. Has it become a lost cause?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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The United States officially began its war on drugs on June 17, 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” He increased funding for drug enforcement and treatment, with most funds allocated to disrupting the supply of illegal drugs. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was founded two years later.

In the years since, the U.S. has destroyed domestically grown marijuana fields, seized drugs being smuggled in and arrested millions of people in attempts to stem the flow of illicit substances. But America, with less than 5 percent of the global population, still uses more drugs than any other market in the world.

This thorny issue demonstrates a fundamental truth about human beings: We cannot govern ourselves. Jeremiah 10:23 says, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps.”

Society knows drugs are a problem yet appears powerless to truly address the issue.

Even though the U.S. has waged the war on drugs for over half a century, the main problems have not changed. During a June 17, 1971, message to Congress, Mr. Nixon said: “We are taking steps under the Comprehensive Drug Act to deal with the supply side of the equation and I am recommending additional steps to be taken now. But we must also deal with demand. We must rehabilitate the drug user if we are to eliminate drug abuse and all the antisocial activities that flow from drug abuse.”

This statement laid out the foundation of American drug policy: Enforcement, treatment and prevention. Despite all the money, time and effort poured into these strategies, their success in the U.S. and the world is questionable. And as fentanyl and other designer drugs have come on the scene, many Americans are dying from overdosing on these exceedingly powerful substances.

Is there any hope for a permanent solution?

Reducing Supply Through Enforcement

Basic economic theory suggests that as supply decreases, price increases. The ongoing war on drugs aims to stop illicit substances from entering the nation by disrupting their production, import and distribution. Ideally, this would render the cost of drugs prohibitively too high for most individuals.

However, despite efforts by the DEA, critics argue that the war on drugs has failed. For example, Hannah Cooper wrote in the journal Substance Use & Misuse in 2015 that despite massive, news-making drug busts, availability remains high and prices low.

The proliferation of fentanyl provided a new twist in this narrative. The Associated Press reported that a significant quantity of illicit fentanyl originated from Wuhan, China, before it became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. The lockdowns initially disrupted its production and supply.

Adapting to the circumstances, Chinese laboratories shifted focus from finished product to raw materials. They began shipping the necessary chemicals to Mexico, where drug cartels would process them. The pandemic-induced closure of the U.S.-Mexico border further incentivized cartels to engage in fentanyl trafficking due to its portability, high potency and profitability.

Remarkably, a small suitcase full of fentanyl possesses the same potency as a trunkful of heroin, making it significantly higher value to the cartels. Moreover, fentanyl mules—the transporters—are often harder to spot. According to the Brookings Institute, Mexican cartels increasingly rely on U.S. citizens to smuggle fentanyl since they raise fewer suspicions with U.S. Border and Customs agents. In 2022, Americans accounted for a staggering 88 percent of fentanyl trafficking convictions.

Consider this striking trend in the state of Arizona: In 2018, authorities seized a total of 380,000 fentanyl pills across the entire state. Only two years later, 2020 saw a significant escalation: just three major drug busts accounted for 681,000 pills. This figure does not account for any other drug-related actions throughout the year.

The DEA was established to enforce the nation’s laws regarding illegal drugs. But the problem of drug trafficking has grown so large that there are insufficient resources—funding and personnel—to effectively police the border.

The Bible shows enforcing laws is important to God. This even applies to laws made by man. Paul wrote, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God…For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad…For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not carry the sword in vain. He is God’s servant, an agent of retribution to the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:1, 3-4, Berean Standard Bible).

God expects people to obey the law or else face the consequences. Yet the Bible also explains why it is so difficult for people to do this: “The carnal mind is enmity [hostile] against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (8:7). Human nature is anti-law. This explains why mankind struggles to keep any form of law—God’s Law or its own.

We must ask a sobering question: Is preventing drugs from entering the U.S. futile?

America has sought assistance from other countries in addressing her drug problem. From the coca forests in Bolivia and Peru to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, efforts to address the source of drugs entering the country have yielded only limited success.

However, tackling the laboratories responsible for producing fentanyl necessitates cooperation from Mexico. Yet Mexico’s army appears to be raiding only a handful of active drug labs every month, despite U.S. pressure to crack down on fentanyl trafficking. According to defense ministry figures obtained by Reuters, facilities that were already out of use accounted for 95 percent of seizures in 2023.

New data obtained by Reuters in August 2023 from the Mexican Defense Ministry (SEDENA) after a freedom of information request showed that out of the 527 labs raided by Mexico’s army in the first seven months of 2023, only 24 laboratories, or less than 5 percent, were “active” labs.

That data also revealed a similar pattern in the first four-and-a-half years of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration, with inactive labs accounting for 89 percent of 1,658 raids carried out by the army from December 2018 to August 2023. The data did not specify how long those labs had been out of use.

Nearly all labs listed on the dataset were labeled meth facilities, with no fentanyl labs reported, in line with Mexico’s statements until recently that no fentanyl was being synthesized on its soil—a claim widely dismissed by Washington and traffickers. Mexico had asserted the synthetic drug was brought over by drug cartels from Asia.

This recent data contradicted a video presented by SEDENA in a government press conference in April that said officials had located 37 sites where final-stage precursors were converted into finished fentanyl and pressed into pills.

A SEDENA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said criminal organizations often leave laboratories inactive between rounds of drug synthesis, which means that a laboratory classified as “inactive” in the August dataset might have been used to produce drugs again had it not been raided by SEDENA.

The U.S. State Department said it was working with Mexico to “strengthen the effectiveness of our security cooperation” and that it recognizes Mexico’s challenges in seizing and dismantling labs.

A White House spokesperson said Mexico and the United States were working side-by-side to address fentanyl trafficking, and “we are grateful for the commitment Lopez Obrador has made to confront this challenge through domestic efforts” and with foreign partners.

However, another U.S. government official claimed that Mexico does not inform the United States how many SEDENA lab raids were conducted on functioning labs versus raids on deserted facilities.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a researcher at the non-partisan think tank Brookings Institute, offered a critical perspective. She believes that the data manipulation serves to appease the U.S. without genuinely tackling fentanyl production and trafficking.

Her view was echoed by Senator Chuck Grassley, co-chairman of the Senate’s International Narcotics Control Caucus. He said the figures suggest that Mexico is “fighting an imaginary war on drugs designed to score political points rather than save lives.”

Can America rely on Mexico or other nations for help when it goes against their own best interests?

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, estimated that the federal government has spent about $1 trillion in the fight against drugs. Each year, the government allocates about $47 billion to sustain this battle.

With such a substantial investment, one might expect an end in sight. Yet the major resources dedicated to stopping drug trafficking have not stemmed the flow.

A 2020 article in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology highlighted a critical flaw in the current approach to the war on drugs. Rather than focus on the effects of the drugs, laws are written against specific chemical structures. This exactness in the law allows chemists to create new psychoactive substances with slightly altered chemical compositions that remain legal.

The emergence of nitazenes, a new type of designer drug, proves such drugs are coming. Nitazenes are 1,000 times stronger than morphine, while fentanyl is merely 100 times more potent. The U.S. Congress still has not passed laws sufficient to address the fentanyl crisis, while another crisis looms on the horizon.

Faced with these challenges, legislating an end to illicit drugs appears hopeless.

Reducing Demand?

In America’s Pacific Northwest, the battle against fentanyl is intensifying, with efforts spanning schools, jails and city streets. State officials in Oregon and Washington have named it a top issue as overdose deaths rise.

A surge in fentanyl deaths, including among children, has marked the latest iteration of the years-long opioid crisis. The most recent provisional figures from the federal U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 78,000 people died from overdoses involving synthetic opioids in the 12 months ending June 2023, accounting for 92 percent of all opioid overdose deaths during that period.

Oregon’s state health department said it plans to offer free opioid overdose reversal kits to middle and high schools. A bill filed ahead of Washington’s short legislative session, which started in January 2024, would require all school districts to make such medication available in its high schools. Current law only requires districts with at least 2,000 students to do so.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives in Washington have been especially affected, dying from opioid overdoses at four times the state average, according to the proposed budget. Washington state Governor Jay Inslee wants some funds to go to a campaign to spread awareness in tribes about opioids.

At least 315 homeless people died in 2022 in just the Portland, Oregon, area, according to an annual report released in December 2023. Nearly 40 percent of those fatalities were from drug overdoses. Methamphetamine contributed to 81 percent of overdose deaths, and fentanyl contributed to 74 percent.

The report stated there were no deaths from fentanyl in 2016 and 2020 had four. By 2021, there were 36. The number for 2023 shot up to 91 fentanyl deaths.

Remember, these numbers are just for Portland!

Such figures show the increased risk of death facing drug users, many of whom are homeless. Homelessness in the U.S. jumped a dramatic 12 percent in 2023 to its highest reported level—further complicating the nation’s drug problem.

The mortality risk for homeless people compared with the general county population was nearly six times higher for all causes of death, the report found. For drug overdoses and homicide, it was 37 times higher and 32 times higher, respectively.

These last numbers are particularly concerning. While addiction does not always lead to homelessness, a strong correlation exists between the two. Addiction—especially to drugs such as fentanyl—often leads to poor decision-making. Additionally, it diverts money from a person’s essentials, such as food, clothing and shelter, to their addiction. The problem often grows as a person watches their life fall apart and feels he is powerless to stop it.

Escape then becomes much more difficult. The Bible aptly sums up addiction’s downward spiral. King Solomon wrote, “The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?” (Prov. 18:14). So long as a person can hope for a better future, they can bear up under hardship. But, once their spirit is wounded, depression, cynicism, loneliness, past trauma, anxiety and other issues come to the fore.

Soon, addicts feel utterly hopeless.

The more a person’s mind works against them, the greater the allure of illicit drugs to provide an escape from the misery of their situation, albeit an illusory and temporary one. While this is occurring, other problems grow worse.

The intersection of homelessness, addiction and mental health presents a complex challenge. While some organizations strive to enhance access to substance abuse and mental health treatment, there are legal limitations on forcing individuals to participate in these programs.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 89.7 percent of Americans with a substance use disorder did not receive any treatment. This includes hospitals, rehab facilities, mental health centers, emergency rooms, private doctor’s offices, self-help groups and even prisons.

When someone realizes that they need help, treatment can be effective for some. However, treatment is complex and involves changing deeply rooted ideas and behaviors. Addiction is powerful, temptation is pervasive and the detox process can be excruciating. Of those who voluntarily seek treatment, about half will return to using drugs.

Eliminating addiction and reducing demand seems impossible.

What About Prevention?

Another approach to decreasing demand involves coordinated boycotts. When someone aims to send a message to a company or industry, the most effective strategy targets its finances. Governments employ various measures against foreign entities, such as sanctions, tariffs and excise taxes. Similarly, people can boycott companies, industries and even nations.

Some boycotts have been successful. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1965 ended racial segregation on public transportation in the city. A 35-year-long boycott of South African-made products contributed to the dismantling of apartheid in 1994. Since the fur trade boycott began in 1985, several nations have banned fur farms, while Israel and California have placed bans on the sale of fur.

However, sustaining and coordinating the will of the people to force change often fails. The BBC reported that boycotts often do not succeed because people struggle to maintain the anger needed to make personal choices that detract from their ease of life.

Effective boycotts rely on the targeted group caring about its customer base, and the impact negative press has on its bottom line. The people who produce fentanyl do not care who their product hurts or even kills. Any boycotting efforts—whatever that would look like—are sure to fail.

Also, an increasing number of individuals believe the government should refrain from interfering in people’s private affairs within their homes. “Live and let live,” the thinking goes.

Educational programs face many of the same challenges. The “Just Say No” campaign, initiated by First Lady Nancy Reagan, began with this memorable slogan. Drug use dipped slightly in the 80s during the height of the campaign.

The Just Say No campaign oversimplified a complex topic, used fearmongering and stigmatization of drug users as criminals and was not as easy to agree with. Perhaps its greatest weakness was that it relied solely on individual willpower. The campaign eventually fizzled out and died.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education’s “D.A.R.E. to resist drugs and violence” campaign came later, targeted at schools and school-aged children. It used many of the same methods as the prior campaign and was criticized for using outdated information and scare tactics—primarily from having police officers deliver the information. It also failed to have any significant impact on drug use.

Modern educational programs use social-emotional learning, peer support, skill-building and access to resources to help with the socioeconomic and racial complexities of drug use. Despite these updated tactics, the SAMHSA report shows either steady or increasing drug use for nearly all drugs by all age ranges. Even the number of pregnant women using drugs is rising.

The shift toward legalizing marijuana has raised questions about the severity of other drugs. The mixed messaging—where tobacco, alcohol and marijuana are legal, while fentanyl and cocaine are not—can lead people to disregard educational efforts.

Reducing drug demand through education and marketing faces too many challenges to be a real solution.

A Reason for Hope

President Nixon also stated this in his 1971 message to Congress: “If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us.” This statement, made half a century ago, remains eerily relevant today. As America continues to grapple with the drug crisis, is there any hope for a solution?

Yes, but it requires a complete transformation of our world.

The Bible paints a vivid picture of a future time when suffering will cease, because “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

When the Kingdom of God comes, the world will be full of abundance and peace. The prophet Micah recorded that “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it” (4:4). Zechariah repeats this promise in his book (3:10).

These conditions are nothing like the horrific drug crisis in America today. Imagine a world where the needs of people and communities are met, suffering vanishes and all pain, sorrow, anxiety and hopelessness disappear. Not just gone, but “the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isa. 65:17).

The scourge of drug addiction will be utterly forgotten. No one will feel driven to pursue escapism in a society full of life, happiness and joy!

Another biblical promise says that people “shall not hurt nor destroy in all My [God’s] holy mountain” (Isa. 11:9). An industry that destroys people’s lives through the production and use of drugs will simply not exist in a world where no one hurts or destroys others.

Understanding God’s Plan will blossom into a “hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Heb. 6:19). Just as an anchor steadies a boat when the tide rises or falls, this hope can keep you steady during life’s ups and downs.

Those who would turn to drugs when facing life’s stresses will know who to turn to, and how. Consider what David said in Psalm 43:5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God: for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.”

A society that obeys God is the only winning strategy in the war on drugs. That world will materialize when God’s Kingdom finally comes to Earth.

Read our booklet What Is the Kingdom of God? to learn more about this Kingdom and how you can prepare for it now. There is hope for the entire world.

This article contains information from The Associated Press.

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