Big Pharma and big retailers like Walmart, CVS and Walgreens that got rich off opioid sales have offered settlements in the billions of dollars to escape liability for the national addiction crisis they helped cause. They don’t admit guilt, but they can’t escape it, either. And the aftermath of the mess they created continues to worsen by the day as street addicts feed their habits with fentanyl, a far more potent and deadly alternative to opioids.
A recent Washington Post series has underscored the depth and breadth of the fentanyl problem, and it should be required reading among policymakers around the country who want to understand why American streets are exploding with death, addiction, homelessness and out-of-control drug crime.
Keep in mind that the roots of this problem are in the opioid epidemic of the 1990s and 2000s, when drug makers raked in billions of dollars by marketing opioids as a safe, non-addictive treatment to relieve chronic pain. They knew that their product was not safe and was highly addictive, yet they continued to market it aggressively anyway in the pursuit of profits.
Today, Mexican drug cartels have recognized the ease with which they can manufacture fentanyl in bulk without having to go to the expense and hassle of growing and harvesting opium to refine it into heroin. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent and deadly. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration and Europol, 107,622 people died in the United States in 2021 from drug overdoses — two-thirds of which were attributable to fentanyl. The fentanyl death rate has jumped 94% since 2019. It kills more people annually than car accidents, suicides or gun shootings.
Tijuana, the busy Mexican city opposite San Diego on the Mexican border, is so awash in cartel activity that turf-battle homicides are skyrocketing. Mexican federal agents seized 19,000 pounds of fentanyl between 2019 and 2022. The fentanyl is often disguised as legitimate pills, including one that appears identical to the legal M30 oxycodone pills marketed by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals in St. Louis. People who take such pills often have no idea they’re ingesting fentanyl.
For all the noise by Republican critics of the Biden administration about the swarm of immigrants at the border — who conservatives blame for the drugs flooding into America — the DEA says the primary smuggling method is hiding the drugs inside the billions of dollars of legitimate cargo transiting the border in tractor-trailer rigs. Cryptocurrencies are making it far easier to launder and repatriate the profits than the old-style methods of opening thousands of small bank accounts or physically trucking dollars back to Mexico.
It is a mess of gigantic proportions being fought by ill-prepared law enforcers who are outmanned, outgunned and out-financed. Brought to you by Big Pharma, which now goes back about its business, having washed its hands of responsibility for the monster it created.