Record overdose deaths in the United States have fixed attention on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, synthesized mainly in Mexico, that is highly addictive and very small in volume. WOLA’s director for drug policy, John Walsh, and director for Mexico, Stephanie Brewer, argue that the challenge fentanyl poses demands a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. approach to illicit drugs.
Today, however, the sense of crisis has escalated so much that, even with an administration that is open to “harm-reduction” approaches to drug policy, policymakers and lawmakers are turning to the get tough recipes of the drug war’s past 50 years.
A push to use military force and demand crackdowns is harming relations with Mexico, where top leadership inaccurately denies that fentanyl is produced. A push to increase incarceration at home threatens to repeat some of the tragic mistakes of the recent past, in which strong-sounding policies did great damage to both Latin America (measured by crime and instability) and the United States (measured by overdose deaths and other harms).
All pure fentanyl consumed in the United States in an entire year can fit inside the beds of two pickup trucks. The drug is “un-interdictable.” Walsh and Brewer argue here that fentanyl’s rise makes evident the need for a harm reduction approach that saves lives and helps people recover from addiction, while working with Mexico to address the conditions that allow organized crime to thrive.