Column

Curran: Key to solving opioid epidemic is border security

For years, the opioid epidemic has devastated communities across the country. As Lake County sheriff for 12 years, I saw the rise of the epidemic firsthand. Working hand-in-hand with other law enforcement agencies, we had more success fighting the epidemic in Lake County than most communities across the country, but we were limited in our success because the federal government has yet to solve the problem that is now driving the epidemic: the flow of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, across the border into America.

The opioid epidemic is not a new crisis. As a sheriff for 12 years, interim coroner for two years and a prosecutor for 16 years, I have been on the frontlines fighting the opioid epidemic for years.

In Lake County, we started innovative, cross-jurisdictional task forces and programs to combat the problem. One of our programs has even won national awards for its success in fast-tracking individuals with substance use disorders to treatment programs and services.

In most of the country, the opioid problem is only getting worse. Drug overdoses killed a record 72,300 Americans in 2017, a rise of 10% since 2016, which is more than the yearly death tolls from HIV, car crashes and gun deaths combined. For this reason, President Donald Trump declared the nation’s opioid epidemic a national health emergency in October 2017.

The growth of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, can be blamed for the recent increase in overdose deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose by 520% between 2013 and 2016. At the same time, overdoses from legitimate prescription drugs leveled off for the first time in history. Federal and state government laws – and new innovative programs such as ours in Lake County – should be credited for the success in reducing prescription drug and heroin overdoses, but we have yet to seriously curtail overdoses from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Just a few months ago, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers made the country’s largest fentanyl bust in history. A whopping 254 pounds of the drug was stopped at the border in a tractor-trailer loaded with cucumbers. In fact, as of mid-July 2019, border agents have seized more than 2,000 pounds of fentanyl– more than enough to poison the entire U.S. population. Perhaps even worse, law enforcement officials are seizing record-setting amounts of the deadly drug thousands of miles from the border as well. In April 2018, Nebraska state troopers seized 118 pounds of fentanyl in a routine traffic stop.

Fentanyl flows into the country via Mexican drug cartels and Chinese drug smugglers, and is trafficked all over the U.S.

China is currently our nation’s largest source of illicit fentanyl, but the problem of drug smuggling across the border has only increased in recent years as the federal government has attempted to crack down on China. Fentanyl seizures more than doubled last year, yet officials at the border say more of the drug is still getting through and ending up in our communities.

The solution to the opioid epidemic starts with increased border security. Federal, state and local government programs have made an impact in stemming the tide of the crisis, but to truly curtail the problem, federal policymakers must focus on tightening border security and giving border agents the training, tools and resources to stop fentanyl before it flows to the rest of the country. Communities across the U.S. have been battling the opioid addiction crisis for years, but we will only be truly successful if the problem at the border is fixed by the federal government.

• Mark Curran is the former Lake County Sheriff.

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