The Washington Post on Wednesday published a searing indictment of the Obama administration for disregarding a plea from health experts to declare a public health emergency for overdoses from fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that was already racking up a body count in 2016 and would go on to kill thousands of people over the next three years.
Fentanyl is so deadly that its most dedicated adversaries compare it to a weapon of mass destruction, a chemical weapons attack by China launched across the U.S. border. Whatever one thinks about the motivations of fentanyl smugglers – greed and/or the desire to kill as many Americans as possible – the drug is so potent that it literally could be used as a chemical weapon, and one suitcase full of the stuff could depopulate a city.
The gist of the Washington Post story is that 11 nationally-recognized health experts sent a private letter to Obama administration officials in May 2016 describing the spread of fentanyl as an “extraordinary public health challenge” and asking President Barack Obama to declare a public health emergency. Among the recipients of the letter were Obama’s drug czar and the head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
The Obama administration did not grant this request, Congress did not allocate enough money to combat fentanyl, the U.S. border was left unsecured, CDC was oddly slow in collating data on fentanyl overdose deaths, and the drug went on to kill more Americans than the Vietnam War. It killed so many people that it dragged the average American life expectancy down.
The lengthy Washington Post article makes it clear the Obama administration knew fentanyl was a serious problem, so the decision not to issue an emergency declaration that could have saved lives seems baffling.
One Obama official, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, gave a speech two months later describing fentanyl as America’s drug problem “on steroids.” The drug czar, Michael Botticelli, told the Post he thought the administration was focused on getting money out of Congress and may have underestimated the difference an emergency declaration would have made. The Post authors ruefully note that Obama did declare a public health emergency for the Zika virus, which ended up killing a total of two people in the continental United States.
A great deal of finger-pointing was done by former Obama officials and congressional representatives throughout the article. Many of those fingers were pointed at former Attorney General Eric Holder, who went soft on low-level drug offenders at the exact moment fentanyl was exploding, leaving demoralized DEA agents unable to follow their traditional strategy of leaning on little drug-dealing fish and working their way up to the big traffickers.
Another problem highlighted by the report that should be familiar to students of the fentanyl horror was the Obama administration’s inability or refusal to understand that fentanyl became a much bigger problem than prescription drug abuse, which was long spotlighted as the leading cause of the opioid epidemic.
“It’s impossible to divorce fentanyl from the broader opioid use epidemic and how we responded,” Obama communications director Katie Hill insisted to the Post.
But that’s exactly the problem: the reluctance of officials to realize fentanyl and other street drugs were the real killers. The deadly bureaucratic inertia lasted long after Obama left office. To this day, advocates for patients who suffer from chronic pain complain of the government’s excessive focus on pills and draconian measures that make it too difficult for people who truly need pain medication to obtain it. Meanwhile, the fentanyl reaper dances through the streets, swinging his bloodstained scythe with abandon.
The Post article concludes by noting President Obama’s final National Drug Control Strategy document talked about soaring deaths from fentanyl, efforts to reduce the flow of drugs across the border, and the difficulty of breaking up trafficking rings.
“The dramatic increase in the availability and use of heroin and fentanyl is a national security, law enforcement, and public health issue, and it has become the highest priority illicit drug threat to the Nation,” the strategy document concluded.
The Post concluded its own Wednesday article with a very unflattering epitaph for Obama’s drug policy:
There were no news conferences or releases to announce the report’s findings. There were no news stories written about the report. No one in Congress issued public statements or calls for action. Nine days later, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president and Obama officials stepped down from their posts, leaving the next administration to confront the deadliest drug crisis in American history.
There are unpleasant political reasons why the fentanyl crisis exploded, some of them directly covered in the monumental Post article, others lurking between the lines.
The Obama administration wanted to shift the focus of law enforcement away from low-level drug offenses. Street gangs are a far less attractive target for politicians and lawyers than deep-pocketed drug companies, and going after them does not involve a great deal of street-level law enforcement or low-level arrests that lead to prison overcrowding. Pills are the problem Washington wants to solve with regulations, white-collar defendants, and massive out-of-court settlements, even if pills are not the problem we actually have.
Finally, fentanyl is indeed a national security crisis, and more importantly a border security crisis, not just because of the drugs themselves but the imported gangster manpower that trafficking rings rely upon. The American political elite, both in 2016 and today, does not want to talk about border security crises.