On a daily basis we are inundated on both the local and national level with news of how the opioid epidemic continues to infiltrate communities across this country. Previously, over-prescription of chronic pain-relieving opioids was believed to be the main cause of this crisis. This lead to state and federal regulations applied to industry and government that have largely controlled the prescription pill abuse issue. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid overdose deaths were still 30 percent higher in 2017 than they were in 2016.
Why is the death toll steadily increasing despite the crackdown on prescription opioids? The answer is those individuals overdosing are not using prescribed painkillers regulated by the FDA. Instead, drugs produced illegally in China are killing Americans at a much more rapid pace. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has near-immediate effects, is one of the most prominent illicit drugs being smuggled into this country over our Mexican and Canadian borders. Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl – equivalent to about 4 grains of salt – can be deadly for anyone who encounters it.
Federal and state agencies have spent years tightening regulations and increasing enforcement on prescription opioids, but this has only opened up a new market for drug cartels. In the first five months of 2018, customs officers and border agents seized 1,060 pounds of fentanyl. When only a few milligrams can kill, 1,060 pounds is an extremely dangerous quantity of this lethal drug.
Montana Highway Patrol and Division of Criminal Investigation Director Bryan Lockerby recently briefed Montana officials that most illegal drugs are coming here from cartels in Mexico and are brought up through either the Washington/Oregon or Utah/Colorado corridors. From these entry points, the illicit drugs are distributed through eastern and western Montana.
The state of Montana is actively doing its part to create a solution. Recently, Attorney General Tim Fox signed on to a bipartisan letter with 52 state and territory attorneys general, requesting that Congress act to close a loophole that allows fentanyl traffickers to avoid law enforcement by passing the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues (SOFA) Act. The SOFA Act will eliminate the current loophole which keeps the controlled substance scheduling system one step behind those who manufacture fentanyl analogues and introduce these deadly drugs into our communities.
In my role as a Montana state Senator, it is critical that the Legislature utilizes every possible resource to prevent these illicit and lethal drugs from coming across our borders and harming our communities. These goals can be met through continuing law enforcement funding for drug control and working with our federal partners on border security. As we receive daily reminders of the horrific tragedies unfolding in our own backyards, we must be willing to step up and fight this issue head on to prevent irreparable damage to our communities. This won’t be solved overnight. But until then, the state of Montana should be taking every step possible to rid us of this crisis.
Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is chair of the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee.