Drug Overdose Deaths Reached Highest Level Ever in 2020, with Fentanyl a Key Factor

As long as the border is in chaos, the deadly drug will keep flowing in and kill even more

By Andrew R. Arthur on July 16, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) this week released its “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts” for 2020. As AP explained the dry CDC numbers, drug overdoses hit a new estimated high of 93,000 last year, with fentanyl driving the surge. With the Southwest border in chaos as migrant apprehensions reach 21-year highs, this year’s total will likely be higher.

As I have explained numerous times in the past (including to Congress, twice), fentanyl is an incredibly dangerous — and deadly drug. The Drug Enforcement Administration describes it as “80-100 times stronger than morphine”. Oxford Treatment Center reports that two milligrams of the drug is a lethal dose for most people (heavy-duty users can handle more).

AP explains that the drug “was involved in more than 60% of the overdose deaths last year, CDC data suggests.” That “involvement” is interesting in and of itself, because fentanyl is now being mixed with other “hard drugs” like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine to make them even more potent.

It’s like adding habaneros to your already spicy chili to give it even more kick. Only in this case, the “undocumented pharmacists” who are brewing up a batch of “smack”, “blow”, and meth are tossing in a little fentanyl to provide users with a bigger high. And illicit drug dealers and producers rarely tell their clientele what exactly went into the product unless it’s good for business.

Why would those producers cut their drugs with fentanyl? Two reasons. Long-term addicts require a stronger hit each time to get the same effects. Plus, drug sales are largely a word-of-mouth business, and if a dealer is selling a more potent product than the competition (junkies share such tips), the business will flock to that dealer.

Perversely, death is not always bad business for those dealers. When one user ODs, other users will often head to the dealer who sold the drugs, knowing that his or her product is strong. Those addicts, of course, convince themselves that they can handle the drugs better, or that they will be more careful, but they are also not known for making great decisions.

AP ties the overdose deaths to the shutdowns that isolated Americans and left untold numbers unemployed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Curiously, direct government payments to those affected by the pandemic also played a role, as users who received unemployment money and who benefited from eviction suspensions found themselves with additional cash to buy more drugs.

As that wire service explains, however: “The proliferation of fentanyl is one reason some experts do not expect any substantial decline in drug overdose deaths this year.”

Why is there a “proliferation of fentanyl”? One main reason (if not the sole reason) is that the drug is flowing into the United States in record amounts. Which brings me to the Southwest border.

As I explained on May 24, the migrant surge there is degrading Border Patrol’s ability to stop the drug smugglers who are bringing in much of the fentanyl that is hitting American streets.

That flood is due to the Biden administration’s border policies, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

In a letter last month to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey complained that the Biden administration's failure to secure the border was flooding his state with fentanyl, which he estimated was responsible for the deaths of 975 West Virginians in 2020.

Morissey explicitly faulted Mayorkas’ June 1 decision to permanently terminate DHS’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, better known as "Remain in Mexico”).

Noting that MPP was premised in part on the need to free up CBP resources to secure the border by dissuading would-be migrants, Morrisey argued that ending the program thus enabled traffickers to move more drugs — including fentanyl — into the United States because it would divert Border Patrol from drug seizures — a fact that Mayorkas apparently never considered when he terminated MPP.

To Morrisey’s point, 40 percent of Border Patrol agents are currently tied up caring for the aliens that they have already apprehended. There aren’t that many agents to secure the 1,954-mile border to begin with and pulling 40 percent of them off the line to feed and process tens of thousands of illegal aliens provides traffickers with new opportunities to move drugs into the United States.

In addition, as Col. Steve McCraw, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, explained recently, traffickers are sending large groups of migrants “across the border in specific areas to tie up CBP with the slow task of processing and detaining all of them”.

Simply put, the more aliens Border Patrol has to apprehend, the more drugs will enter the United States. That gives the drug cartels even more money to ramp up production and shipment, in a vicious circle of lawlessness and ultimately, as the CDC statistics show, death.

I would have gone further than the West Virginia attorney general did by also blaming Biden’s other blanket reversals of Trump-era policies that were effective in cutting the illegal migration flow (as documented by my colleague Rob Law in March), as well as the administration’s own messaging encouraging foreign nationals to enter illegally, but Morrisey’s point is plainly correct.

As the CDC data reveals, more Americans are dying of drug overdoses now than at any time in the past (by way of comparison, there were 9,000 overdose deaths in 1988, less than one-tenth last year's number). Part of that is demand for drugs, but there’s little the federal government can do about that. The Biden administration can, however, ameliorate the problem by cutting the supply of drugs entering the country. That means freeing up CBP to stop those drugs by limiting illegal migration. It should start doing so today.