On Wednesday May 11th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that deaths from drug overdoses had reached an all-time high, almost 108,000 in the past twelve months.
That’s massive. It’s the equivalent of all the annual deaths from auto accidents, home accidents, and murders combined. It’s more than all the American deaths in the five wars since 1946.
Drug overdose is an epidemic. Which leads to a question. Who or what is the culprit behind this skyrocketing plague of drug overdoses? Is it the policies of Joe Biden? Is it a leftover from the reign of Donald Trump? Or is it a product of COVID lock downs?[i]
In fact, it’s none of the above. It’s the fact that drug makers in Mexico can order chemicals from China, stand over a primitive pot and cook up one of the strongest painkillers this planet has ever seen.
And it’s the fact that drug operations like Mexico’s Sinoloa cartel and Mexico’s New Generation Jalisco cartel can distribute that painkiller in North America and make a fortune.
The painkiller behind the drug overdose epidemic is fentanyl. Fentanyl overdoses have gone from 10,000 in 2015 to 70,000 in 2021, the last year of the Trump administration. Yes, fentanyl overdoses jumped from 10,000 to 70,000 in just six years. Including the four years of the Trump administration. That’s a massive leap.
But under Joe Biden, fentanyl overdoses have continued to rise. Which means that neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden is responsible for the drug overdose epidemic.
However there’s another potential culprit: COVID lockdowns. The World Health Organization says that in the age of COVID, depression has gone up 25%. And other research indicates that there’s been an increase in the feeling of loneliness in the lockdown years. So COVID is way up there on the list of suspects.
But the rise in fentanyl overdoses started eight years before COVID appeared. The problem is the ease of cooking up a pain killer you or I might someday need to use. How did that ease come about?
In 1960, the Belgian chemist and drug company founder Paul Jensen was looking for molecules that would target pain better than morphine. He found fentanyl, a drug 100 times more potent than morphine. By 1963, doctors could prescribe fentanyl in Europe. In 1972, fentanyl was approved for use in the United States.
But back in 1972, fentanyl had critics who opposed its approval. They were disturbed by the potential of fentanyl to become a street drug. And they were right. Meanwhile, Chinese companies learned that they could export fentanyl illegally to North America and make a fortune. Because fentanyl was so powerful, fifty doses would weigh as much as a single dose of a drug like heroin. Which made fentanyl easy to hide and easy to ship.
The United States and its European allies were alarmed and pressured the Chinese government to ban the manufacture of fentanyl. In May 2019, China’s government complied. But Chinese fentanyl makers adapted. Roughly 100 suppliers sold fentanyl’s chemical precursors—the chemicals from which fentanyl could be made. For all practical purposes, the Chinese vendors sold do-it-yourself kits for fentanyl. At the same time, advertising on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Vimeo made it easier than ever for those suppliers to reach potential buyers. And Amazon-style methods of shipping assured that customers received their fentanyl DIY kits fast.
The result is simple. Fentanyl is taking over the illegal drug market, Deaths from prescription opioids like Oxycontin have gone down since 2017. Yes, Oxycontin deaths have gone down. Heroin overdose deaths have also gone down since 2016. And cocaine overdoses have been flat since 2009. But fentanyl overdose deaths have rocketed up from a few hundred in 2014 to nearly 60,000 in 2020.
So why don’t we simply forbid fentanyl everywhere on earth? Because fentanyl is a mixed blessing. It can ease the pain of those in intolerable agony, like cancer and radiation therapy patients. Or fibromyalgia patients. Some day it may pull you and me out of a torture we can’t endure.
But the tiniest overdose of fentanyl can kill you. The men mixing fentanyl in Mexico stay upwind of their fentanyl cooking pots for a reason. They know that if the wind carries fentanyl their way, it can end their lives.
Is there a solution to the fentanyl overdose plague? Yes. Two of them. First off, there are fentanyl test strips[ii], strips that allow you to see if there’s any fentanyl in, let’s say, your marijuana. And second, every illegal drug user in the country should carry naloxone. Naloxone totally reverses fentanyl overdose. If Prince, my client and a person I cherished, had been carrying naloxone at ten AM on April 21 of 2016, he would be alive today.
Howard Bloom has been called the Einstein, Newton, and Freud of the 21st century by Britain’s Channel 4 TV. One of his seven books–Global Brain—was the subject of a symposium thrown by the Office of the Secretary of Defense including representatives from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Psychology Today, and the Scientific American. He does news commentary at 1:06 am et every Wednesday night on 545 radio stations on Coast to Coast AM. For more, see http://howardbloom.institute.