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Tracing America's plunge into an opioid crisis

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

No matter where you live in the U.S., no matter what you do, by now, you've probably heard about or been touched by the fentanyl crisis. Two-thirds of the 100,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S. last year were caused by fentanyl. And a Washington Post analysis says it's now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49. What is particularly tragic, according to that same report by The Post, is that it didn't have to be this way. In a new series, The Post says that failures across four presidential administrations, both Republicans and Democrats, brought us to where we are today. Our colleague Michel Martin spoke to one of the reporters on the series, Nick Miroff. He covers the Department of Homeland Security for The Washington Post. And Miroff began by saying what drew him and his team to the conclusion that failure by a succession of administrations let this crisis get out of control.

NICK MIROFF: There's an accumulation of failures behind the 100,000 annual overdose deaths. This is a crisis that's been building for many years. It spans several administrations and multiple institutions. This is the most lethal narcotics crisis in American history. And when these institutions were challenged with this epidemic, they've fallen short.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Your series is titled Cartel Rx, and one of the stories that you tell is how the - people, I think, originally thought of fentanyl as a product mainly coming from China. But then you say that the Mexican cartels ended up owning this market. You know, how did that happen, and what does that mean for Americans?

MIROFF: Around 2016, 2017, things really began to shift to Mexico as the trafficking organizations in Mexico realized that they could bring precursor chemicals, from China primarily, and that they could make it themselves for far cheaper. And one of the most striking things we found in the course of reporting this is that heroin has almost disappeared from illegal drug markets in the United States, and it's been almost entirely replaced by fentanyl. And fentanyl is so much cheaper and so much more potent, and it's creating more addicts. And that's really the logic behind it. That's really what's driving this is the desire of these trafficking organizations to create new customers, to get more people addicted.

MARTIN: One of the arguments of this piece is that there were points over the course of four different administrations that could have intervened in this crisis. And you're saying that pretty much at every stage, that the administration was fighting the last war or a different war, if I can use the language, kind of - the drug war. So to be fair about it, tell me one of the Democratic administrations that could have done more, and why didn't they?

MIROFF: Well, we go back to the Obama administration, for example, which, when fentanyl first began to appear, treated it more like something that would be an additive to heroin rather than an emerging specific threat that would require its own strategy. This was also a time when there was kind of a broad reconsideration of U.S. drug laws and the criminal justice system. And the White House drug czar's position was removed from the Cabinet and demoted, essentially. It was also the beginning of a period of real turmoil at the DEA.

And then, of course, you know, when President Trump and his administration were so focused on the border, it was mostly to stop immigration. And the Department of Homeland Security, under President Trump, spent $11 billion to build a border wall that today is virtually useless for stopping fentanyl because fentanyl is coming not with, you know, migrants who are crossing the border but in vehicles and commercial trucks that smugglers are using to bring the drugs into the United States and evade detection.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, though, about the argument that, you know, four different administrations could have intervened in this and didn't? I mean, 'cause the argument seems to be that this could have been anticipated but wasn't.

MIROFF: Right.

MARTIN: And is that really the case? Or is this something that people just had not seen before and didn't know what it was? Which is it?

MIROFF: It isn't that someone saw this and failed to act or, you know, made a specific decision at one point that led us to this point. But there were people on the front lines - there were prosecutors, federal agents on the border seeing this emerge in 2016, 2017 who were starting to ring the alarm bells about the threat that this would become when the cartels moved even more aggressively into fentanyl trafficking. And even during those years, those warning signs were mostly ignored.

MARTIN: Well, in recent weeks, the Biden administration has said that it's slowing the rate of fentanyl deaths. Is that true?

MIROFF: You know, I have heard that, but we haven't seen updates from the CDC. And this is, you know, again, one of the challenges - right? - is that we have really only projected data from 2021. So here we are now at the end of 2022, and we don't have CDC figures on fatal overdoses. And the government doesn't have a good way to track this stuff in real time. So as one - you know, one of the people we spoke to put it, it's like, you know, following this by visiting - tracking this epidemic by visiting cemeteries.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Nick, as I said, you were part of a team of reporters that reported this seven-part series. And do you mind if I ask you, what were one or two of the stories that kind of still keeps you up at night?

MIROFF: You know, there were many heartbreaking stories that we came across in the course of reporting this, but there's one in particular that, you know, continues to haunt me. And that was the - this family, the Fizelles (ph), from Oklahoma, who lost one daughter in San Diego in 2020. They were able to - the police in San Diego were able to find the dealer that sold the fatal dose of fentanyl to their younger daughter, and that dealer was sentenced in October. They went to the - family went to the sentencing and returned home to Oklahoma. And two days later, their other daughter died of a fatal overdose. And so this is - these are two parents who lost both their children. And it's just - you know, it's every parent's nightmare. And it's left - you know, this is an epidemic that has left so many families really hurting and so many parents very fearful. So anything we can do to bring attention to it, we're hope - you know, we hope can help.

MARTIN: Nick Miroff covers the Department of Homeland Security for The Washington Post. He was part of a team of reporters that delivered a seven-part series on the fentanyl crisis. It's called Cartel Rx. Nick Miroff, thanks so much for joining us.

MIROFF: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.