As the United States recorded a record 107,000 drug overdose deaths in fiscal year 2021, nearly two-thirds of which were from synthetic opioids, federal agencies across government are devoting new resources to fight the epidemic.
According to agency data, Customs and Border Protection seized more than 11,000 pounds of fentanyl in fiscal year 2021, which more than doubled the total from the previous year and quadrupled by compared to fiscal year 2019. CBP again nearly doubled that total in fiscal year 2022, seizing more than £20,000. The Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced that it seized 36 million lethal doses of fentanyl from May through September.
In recent years, most fentanyl entering the United States does so through the southern border after the necessary chemicals are shipped from East Asia to Mexico. Christopher Heck, acting deputy deputy director of Homeland Security Investigations with the Department of Homeland Security, said Wednesday at the National Crime Prevention Council’s fentanyl summit that his component now has 93 offices in 56 countries working with local law enforcement to disrupt the fentanyl trade. HSI has hundreds of special agents working with host governments, Heck said, sharing intelligence and collaborating on investigations to “attack organized crime at the manufacturing level.” This led the agency to seize 800,000 pounds of “precursor chemicals” this year alone.
“Our goal is to stop the supply before it even gets to Mexico,” Heck said.
When the chemicals reach the Western Hemisphere, HSI then works with its partners in Mexico to shut down the labs where fentanyl is typically manufactured. Finally, HSI works with CBP to intercept the synthetic opioid at points of entry.
CBP is responsible for point-of-entry checks and inspection of packages at US Postal Service international mail facilities. Pete Flores, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, told Congress earlier this year that his agency had stepped up its efforts to find and seize fentanyl by training all of its canine teams in opioid detection, by providing field testing devices to CBP officers and having scientists. on call 24 hours a day to review the data.
In 2018, President Trump signed into law the STOP Synthetic Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, which sought to require foreign countries to provide “advanced electronic data” on all international packages before they reach United States. Congress passed the law as the opioid epidemic ravaged communities across the country and international traffickers — mostly from China — increasingly used the U.S. Postal Service to send synthetic opioids like fentanyl to US customers. Although the law is still not fully implemented, it appears to have had a dramatic impact in shifting smuggling efforts away from the mail and towards the southern border.
Jon DeLena, the DEA’s public affairs chief, said at the summit Wednesday that his agency faces a threat on a scale never seen before. Since drugs are based on chemicals rather than plants, it is easier for cartels to mass-produce. The DEA has led efforts to follow the money trail to reduce fentanyl production efforts. HSI, meanwhile, is now focusing its efforts on cryptocurrency, as Heck noted, “the days of seeing hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a bag, as a commodity, are moving away. slowly”.
Derrick Brent, deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said his agency is working with CBP, DEA, international partners and others to raise awareness of the dangers of counterfeit pharmaceuticals – which can sometimes contain dangerous synthetic opioids – and to reduce the demand for them. The USPTO works directly with its Mexican counterparts to help Mexican authorities identify counterfeit products.
Heck noted that his agency takes “enormous precautions” to protect federal employees from potential exposure to fentanyl, as even a small amount can be fatal. All federals potentially working near the drug, such as CBP officers at postal facilities, are issued personal protective equipment. CBP is legally required to make available to all officers at risk of fentanyl exposure naloxone or narcan, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses. A 2019 inspector general report, however, found that the agency did not always make it available and did not have a policy requiring it.
In July, the House unanimously approved a bill (HR 5274) requiring CBP to issue “containment devices” to its frontline personnel and train workers in their proper use. The devices create a controlled negative pressure environment to store substances, which creates a safer environment for personnel while allowing for better preservation for investigative purposes. The Senate has yet to vote on the measure.
In his fiscal year 2023 budget, President Biden requested $42.5 billion for research, prevention, treatment and recovery support services, which would mark a 7.5% increase. Last month, the White House announced $1.5 billion in grants from the Department of Health and Human Services to support state and local efforts to address the opioid crisis.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clearly state that HSI is the agency focused on cryptocurrency investigations.