A bipartisan bill aimed at curbing the nation’s crippling opioid epidemic would make U.S. aid for fentanyl-producing countries like China contingent on drug investigation cooperation. The Blocking Deadly Fentanyl Imports Act, put forth by U.S. Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.), would also require the State Department to identify nations that are major producers of fentanyl in its annual report on narcotics trafficking.
“The opioid and heroin epidemic has become increasingly lethal in part due to the widespread presence of illicit fentanyl,” Toomey said, in announcing the bill on his website. “Since fentanyl can be fifty times as potent as heroin, just a tiny amount of this dangerous substance can kill a person, including first responders who may be inadvertently exposed to the drug when responding to an overdose victim or a crime scene.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is approved to treat severe pain, typically in advanced cancer patients. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose and death are linked to illegally-made versions of the drug, and sold through illegal vendors. It is often mixed with heroin or cocaine with or without the user’s knowledge.
In July 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a report indicating hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription pills have been entering the market since 2014, with some containing deadly amounts of fentanyl.
The U.S. Senate released its own findings this year, indicating that fentanyl can be easily purchased online from overseas pharmaceutical companies, particularly from China. However, tracking these products has proved difficult, as even trace amounts of the drug can turn major profits.
In June, Customs and Border Protection agents seized 110 pounds of fentanyl from China in Philadelphia, which was valued at $1.7 billion and was estimated to be lethal enough to wipe out Pennsylvania’s population twice.
The U.S. Postal Service and Customs and Border Protection have stepped up efforts to detect and track shipments from overseas, but experts caution that the makers will find new ways to smuggle the products across the borders.
“The interdiction agencies are trying to get smarter at the task, which is of course what they ought to do,” Mark Kleiman, director of the Crime and Justice Program at New York University’s Marron Institute, told the Chicago Tribune in June. “But we shouldn’t count on success, and we should make policy as if those drugs are going to be easily available.”
The Senate passed another opioid bill earlier this month which included provisions to limit illegal importation of fentanyl through the mail system by improving digital tracking on international packages.
Under Toomey and Jones’ proposal, fentanyl-producing nations would lose access to the Export-Import Bank and be ineligible for other U.S. taxpayer-subsidized aid if it failed to cooperate with U.S. authorities.
Toomey had previously called on the Obama administration to put pressure on China to stop the production of fentanyl and block its exportation, according to the Times Online. He’s also co-sponsored resolutions to designate it as a “public health crisis.”
“For the sake of our communities and the safety of law enforcement, countries like China must stop illicitly exporting fentanyl and improve their drug enforcement efforts now,” he said on his website.