You can’t stop fentanyl

Fentanyl has killed more Americans than the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And lined up behind it are still more vicious street drugs.

The Justice Department can indict Chinese companies producing fentanyl and the precursor chemicals used to make it. The Biden administration can pressure Mexico to come down harder on drug trafficking.

None of this is going to work. As long as people can make money off these drugs and others are willing to pay for them, the flow will not stop. How has the 52-year War on Drugs worked out so far?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. Cheap to make, it is about 50 times as powerful as pure heroin. Of the reported 107,081 drug overdose deaths in America last year, more than two-thirds involved synthetic opioids other than methadone. A gram of fentanyl is so dangerous that experienced drug users have been known to die after making some careless dosing error.

Fentanyl usually takes the form of white powder that can be turned into pills or mixed with other drugs, such as meth, cocaine or heroin. And those who buy street versions of commonly prescribed drugs — say, Xanax for anxiety or Oxycodone for pain — may be getting something with fentanyl mixed in.

And there are scarier drugs. Carfentanil, a member of the fentanyl family of opioids, is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. Originally developed as a tranquilizer for elephants, it can masquerade as heroin.

Another animal sedative, xylazine, has been increasingly detected in fentanyl products. Often going under the name of “tranq” or “zombie drug,” xylazine is not an opioid but a sedative. That means overdose reversal treatments, such as Narcan, don’t work against it. It furthermore causes gruesome flesh wounds.

These monstrous drugs can be made in laboratories. The impossibility of diking the flood has changed the calculous of groups trying to mitigate this crisis. Instead of fighting against the supply, one epidemiologist said, “It is something that we’re coexisting with.”

Their strategy is “harm reduction.” Knowing that there’s a huge market for street drugs, they are trying to make that supply safer. One means is to set up machines in health departments and universities that can test drugs for deadly substances. Users can anonymously turn over their illegal drugs for analysis.

The machines, however, can cost hundreds of thousands. There are far cheaper and mostly reliable test strips that let users check for the presence of fentanyl.

Who is going to use this technology? It might work in social settings such as nightclubs, where the testing is done right on the premises. But what about kids being handed pills at a party?

And will addicts suffering an agonizing withdrawal bother to test a drug that they think could quickly relieve their anguish? The do-it-yourself test strips require a number of steps — not unlike the COVID home testing kits — that a disorganized junkie might have trouble following.

Florida, Texas, Kansas and Georgia, meanwhile, have made these test kits illegal, deeming them “drug paraphernalia.” That’s too bad, as well as bad labeling. We should try everything to save lives. But it would also be a mistake to let testing add to the sense that street drug use is in any way safe.

Fentanyl has even shown up in some marijuana. Legal marijuana bought at dispensaries is a fairly safe bet, if not foolproof. And note that in states where weed’s use has been legalized, it is still illegal to buy it from illicit sources.

As for fentanyl, governments can’t stop the killing. Only its customers have that power. So far, they’re not using it.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.