Senate hearing on fentanyl outlines international supply chain that brings drug to U.S.

A Congressional hearing on fentanyl brought some of the Biden administration's key drug officials together to examine how to address what is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 45. Lisa Desjardins has more on the testimony and efforts to tackle the crisis.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    A congressional hearing today on fentanyl brought together the administration's key drug officials to examine how to address what is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 45.

    Lisa Desjardins has more on the testimony and efforts to tackle the opioid crisis.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ):

    Across our nation, fentanyl is driving a surge of deaths.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The Senate Foreign Relations Committee taking on a crisis that claims more than 70,000 American lives every year. And it's deepening.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez:

    This is a crisis we cannot solve just within our borders.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Top officials across the federal government testified and more at times grilled on the Biden administration's handling of fentanyl trafficking and sales in the U.S., which all agreed pose an unprecedented threat.

  • Anne Milgram, Administrator, Drug Enforcement Administration:

    It is the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced.

    Rahul Gupta, Director of National Drug Control Policy: This is a new era of drug trafficking, and it requires a new era of drug policy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Officials outlined the dominant international supply chain. Chemicals mass-produced in China are sent to Mexico, where cartels make them into fentanyl powder and press out drugs that often look like prescription pills. Those then flow into the United States for sale.

    Senators challenged federal policy at each step of that chain. Ambassador Todd Robinson, an assistant secretary for the Narcotics Bureau at the State Department, admitted China was not cooperating as the U.S. would like.

  • Todd Robinson, U.S. Assistant Secretary, Narcotics Bureau:

    We have had very limited engagement with China.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But he defended the administration's effort to Republicans who said President Biden hasn't prioritized fentanyl in his meetings with the Chinese president.

  • Todd Robinson:

    We have a number of issues to discuss with them. And there is no…

  • Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN):

    Well, I will interrupt you, because the number one issue we have just established, a top priority for this administration is dealing with the poisoning of our kids.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Current data show the vast majority of fentanyl comes through a few ports of entry. Experts at the hearing asked for dozens more scanners to detect it.

    Senators debated border issues in general.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX):

    This administration made a conscious political decision to open the borders.

  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ):

    To say that is the center of the fentanyl crisis is just not true.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Customs and Border Protection seized more than 14,000 pounds of fentanyl in the last fiscal year, plus millions of pills, that altogether amounted to 410 million doses.

    Anne Milgram, who heads the Drug Enforcement Agency, said, while the U.S. tries to weaken the cartels as it can, Mexico needs to act.

  • Anne Milgram:

    We believe Mexico needs to do more to stop the harm that we're seeing.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez:

    I don't see the willingness. I don't see the urgency. I don't see the commitment. I don't see the actions that would indicate to me that Mexico is being a good partner.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Inside the U.S., opioid deaths are rising among teens, many of whom are buying drugs on social media, at times unaware those drugs contain fentanyl.

  • Anne Milgram:

    We view social media right now as the superhighway of drugs.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Amid tense political moments came recognition of the human toll.

    Senator Tim Scott read from a father's eulogy of a 27-year-old fentanyl victim.

  • Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC):

    "For now. I will have a broken heart that will never, ever mend. So I will just live my life until I see you again."

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Universal recognition of the problem, still a struggle in the U.S. to find the solutions.

    Joining me now to help us better understand this crisis is Brian Mann. He's a correspondent for NPR covering addiction.

    Brian, just a big question. Where do we stand right now with this fentanyl crisis and deaths in America?

  • Brian Mann, National Public Radio:

    This is a devastating moment.

    If it weren't for the COVID pandemic, this would be the epidemic that Americans are talking about. This is now killing more than 100,000 people a year. That includes fentanyl primarily, but also methamphetamines and other drugs, all of them really flowing in from Mexico.

    And one thing that I always like to point out is that, unlike the COVID pandemic that largely hit older Americans, this crisis is really hitting young people, which has a devastating impact on communities, on economies. And there's also no end in sight. Unlike COVID, which we're slowly putting behind us, this seems to just keep getting worse.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One expert today suggested that we shouldn't refer to these as overdose deaths, but instead as poisonings, because so many people, especially young people, don't know they're taking fentanyl. These are fake pills.

    Can you help understand, how are people acquiring fentanyl? Or is this mainly through fake pills? Are these people who are seeking out fentanyl itself?

  • Brian Mann:

    It is really a mix now.

    It is true that the Mexican drug cartels are mixing fentanyl into almost everything. If you buy heroin on the street, if you buy methamphetamines on the street, it's likely to have fentanyl mixed in.

    Unfortunately, this drug is so powerful. Fentanyl is so strong that people who've been using opioids for a long time and who are deeply addicted are also now seeking it out, because it gives this kind of euphoric high that they're looking for. And so there's a real kind of mix of how this is harming people.

    A lot of the drug deaths are people who are seeking fentanyl. But you're right, there are kids, young people, college students, executives who take one pill at a party, they're experimenting a little bit, thinking they're doing something reasonably safe, and it kills them. So there's — it's really hitting Americans in a lot of different places.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What about the supply? China and Mexico, what do they need to do or what could they do to try and stop this flow? Is there anything realistic?

  • Brian Mann:

    All the experts I talk to say that the flow of fentanyl into this country is going to be almost impossible to stop.

    And the reasons are pretty straightforward. This is a chemical mix that is pretty easy to make. It's cheap to make. The precursor chemicals do come from China. And so far, the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China are such that fentanyl just keeps kind of falling off the list.

    We wind up talking about trade or Taiwan or microchips. And the precursor chemicals are never the thing that the Biden administration or the Trump administration really focuses on. And then you have Mexico, the other big piece of this. The Mexican cartels take those chemicals from China and reformulate them into fentanyl.

    The Mexicans have backed away from the drug war, which was never very effective to begin with. The Mexican government shows very little interest in trying to take on these powerful, violent organizations. And even if we did somehow diplomatically convince them to get back in the game, it's really a big question how effective they would be.

    So much of the Mexican government has been corrupted by the cartels with their massive amounts of wealth, or they're intimidated. They're cowed by the potential for violence. And so bringing partners back into this fight looks really challenging and difficult.

    And then there's one more piece. Fentanyl is uniquely difficult to stop. You can smuggle it in tiny quantities. It's so powerful that you can bring it in a backpack and feed a huge part of the United States. And so, even if you did manage to get everybody on the same page, and everybody working shoulder to shoulder, stopping fentanyl from hitting the streets would be a daunting task.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, then I know, especially for parents, because this is now the leading cause of death for young Americans, it's scary.

  • Brian Mann:

    You know, I'm 57 years old, and I came up at a time when, yes, we told people don't do drugs, but the chances were, if you experimented a little bit, played around a little bit, you were probably going to be OK, right? Statistically, that's just the truth.

    Now, it really is the case, if you're at a party, if you're someplace where somebody hands you a pill, it can kill you very quickly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Today, the independent advisers, the FDA, recommended making Narcan available over the counter. That's a key treatment potentially for this.

    What do we know about what actually could be helping things in the future?

  • Brian Mann:

    I think one of the things that's important is that there is really hope. There are better medicines that help people with opioid addiction.

    Narcan is a big one. This is a medication that reverses overdoses when they're happening, right? And so if we can get that on the streets, get that everywhere, that, if someone's in an overdose, it can save a life right there on the spot.

    But, also, there are medications like buprenorphine and methadone that can help people survive opioid addiction long term. It helps them avoid relapses and it keeps them from going out on the streets and buying things that are laced with fentanyl.

    So the health care and the medical care around this crisis is getting better and better. It's still not perfect, but it does really appear to be saving lives. So there is really hope on that front.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Such important reporting.

    Brian Mann of NPR, thank you.

  • Brian Mann:

    Thank you.

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