Commentary: How fentanyl got its grip on Texas

As a former Border Patrol Agent, Member of Congress and Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I understand first-hand the difficulties of securing our borders.

Perhaps today, there may be no more important border-security priority than stopping fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, from entering the United States from Mexico and China.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever approved for treating severe pain and is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it does have a legitimate medical use, the CDC says it “is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect.”

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CDC statistics found that “among the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (synthetic opioids) with over 20,000 overdose deaths.”

The rise in fentanyl-related overdoses is tied directly to the national opioid epidemic, which over the last decade has become our nation’s biggest public health crisis.

As law enforcement agencies are cracking down on the over-prescription of opioid medications — and as physicians are taking steps to limit the availability of these drugs — treatment is often missing from the equation. Lacking access to drug rehabilitation, addicts look to synthetic opioid alternatives. Regrettably, drug dealers and international crime syndicates have stepped in to lure addicts by producing, smuggling and distributing fentanyl across America.

One way that fentanyl enters the country is through online sales from China. Investigators recently identified 500 online fentanyl transactions that had a street value of about $766 million, according to a report by the US Congress. Many of these illegal drug shipments originating from China were even conducted through the U.S. Postal Service. Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, one of the sponsors of the report, stated, “We now know the depth to which drug traffickers exploit our mail system to ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into the United States.”

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Another way fentanyl is smuggled into the country, is across our southern border. Drug cartels in Mexico — already experts on bringing methamphetamines into the U.S. — now are using the same methods to bring in fentanyl, which, is even more deadly and addictive than meth.

Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner for the Texas Department of State Health Services, recently told legislators that over the last decade that the number of opioid-related overdoses in Texas has steadily increased. “From 1999 to 2007 there was a steep increase in the number of drug overdose deaths, starting at 793 and peaking at over 2,000. Since then, we have remained at 2,000 deaths in any given year,” he said.

I want to be clear: It will not be easy to stem the tide of fentanyl. After all, it is both highly addictive for users and extremely profitable for dealers. But, for the safety our friends, families and neighbors, all law enforcement agencies simply must do a better job.

Reyes, a Democrat, represented Texas’ 16th District in Congress from 1997 to 2013.

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