Grandstanding on the border will never solve the nation’s drug crisis

by Dan Rodricks

Forty-eight-year-old Thamar Smith of Hagerstown, Md., pleaded guilty to federal drug charges last week, the latest in a long line of American men who have contributed to the spread of heroin and fentanyl during an epidemic of opioid abuse that represents the tragic extent of despair across the land.

The sale and use of opioids, once concentrated in cities like Baltimore, increased significantly in suburban and rural areas like Hagerstown several years ago. And the use of fentanyl has caused a level of misery and death not seen before.

In its national report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths in 2021, an increase of nearly 15% from 2020. The CDC attributes most of those deaths to fentanyl. The Drug Enforcement Administration says the primary source countries for fentanyl are China, Mexico and India.

Last week, the Republican governor of Texas blamed President Joe Biden’s border policies for the deaths in a tractor-trailer of more than 50 migrants.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s lone Republican member of Congress, posted on Facebook a video of himself blaming lax border security for not only the San Antonio tragedy but for the flow of fentanyl into the country. In one drug bust, Harris said, a smuggler “was arrested at the border with enough fentanyl to kill 12 million Americans.”

In fact, the 60-year-old suspect in that case was arrested in Fullerton, Calif., in northern Orange County. Authorities did not say where the drugs came from, according to initial press reports. Despite not having all the facts, Harris might be right — the fentanyl might very well have come out of Mexico. Harris, of course, blames Biden for that.

This is typical Republican grandstanding. They have opposed efforts at real immigration reform for years. They stood by Donald Trump and applauded his demonization of immigrants and his cruel border policies. They decried Biden’s commonsense directive to prioritize border enforcement on migrants who represent a real threat to national security or public safety. (A ruling by a Trump-nominated federal judge in Texas forced the administration to back off that approach, though it’s unclear what that now means in practical terms for immigration enforcement.)

And, of course, Republicans connect the fentanyl crisis to Biden border policy.

But that crisis has been with us for years now. In 2016, the year Trump was elected president, there were 42,249 overdose deaths. By 2020, his last year in office, there were 93,655.

These are deaths of despair, overlooked largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic and all else that afflicts the country — political division and turmoil, daily violence and mass shootings, now inflation and the possibility of recession.

But the deaths of men and women from fentanyl provide a measure of something that’s been in the American atmosphere for years — a sense of hopelessness among those who have been left out of the social and economic progress enjoyed by a relatively small part of the population since the 1980s.

Everyone has problems, right? But some have more than others, some are born into problems many of us cannot imagine. And what starts out as anxiety or lack of self-esteem grows to something larger and chronic and even fatal. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing your fellow human beings  get lost in the fog of drugs, dysfunction and failure. Once they’re in the fog, it’s hard to get them out.

Tightening border security to stop the flow of fentanyl — that’s certainly important. Based on the number of arrests and indictments reported daily, law enforcement agencies are still doing a lot of drug interdiction. The latest report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission says drug offenses continue to be the most common reasons for federal incarceration, with fentanyl increasingly the primary product of those sentenced to prison for distribution.

But, as I’ve stated in this space more times than I can remember, we can try to stop the supply of drugs, but it’s a futile project if the demand remains.

We had a chance, 50 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, to attack the brewing addictions crisis with a public health approach. We could have built hospitals instead of prisons to provide treatment on demand to any American who needed help getting to recovery. That might have greatly reduced demand for drugs.

Only recently, as fentanyl tore into suburban and rural communities, have more members of the political class acknowledged the futility of trying to arrest our way out of this crisis.

And yet, we still have Republican politicians like Andy Harris — a medical doctor who opposed the expansion of government-subsidized health care, including mental health care, and who chooses to grandstand on border security rather than actually do something that might stem the demand for drugs.

Dan Rodricks is a long-time columnist for The Baltimore Sun.