Opioids, China and Washington: Fentanyl's Deadly Reach

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By Julia Arciga

America’s opioid crisis has been an ongoing, escalating saga that has snowballed into a “mass-causality event,” according to MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff on the latest episode of 1947: The Meet the Press Podcast.

Soboroff started covering the opioid epidemic during the 2016 presidential campaign, and hosts the MSNBC Special “One Nation, Over Dosed.” He says that he did not grasp the full scope of the crisis until he took an up-close look by travelling across the nation and talking to people on the ground.

“I thought what probably a lot of people think, which is this affects kind of the worst of the worst, the dark corners of society—and the reality is, it touches just about everyone in the areas where these drugs are available, and the area where these drugs are available is across the entire United States,” said Soboroff.

The current crisis is the tangential result of pain medicine being commonly over prescribed during the ‘80s and ‘90s. From there, pill addicts soon turned to heroin. Now, fentanyl – a synthetic opioid and “true violent criminal” in the epidemic – is commonly distributed on American streets, and only a tiny dosage is enough to give addicts “the heat,” or give them an overdose.

“Fentanyl was originally prescribed for only breakthrough cancer pain,” said Soboroff. “Then drug manufacturers…started to make derivatives, fentanyl analogs of this and then shipped both to the Mexican cartels, who have always smuggled drugs into the United States.”

The modern marketplace is a factor in exacerbating the effects of the crisis. In his most recent report for TODAY, Soboroff found how easy it was to order fentanyl manufactured in China online.

“You type in ‘buy fentanyl’ on Google – the top result is a company where you can type in and we e-mailed back-and-forth,” said Soboroff. “You go back-and-forth with China and they say to you: ‘Here is what a kilo of fentanyl costs. We can ship it to you. We can guarantee it, actually, if you pay $3,000 more and we’ll re-send it if customs grabs it’ -- and you can get it through the mail.”

From visiting morgues, talking to doctors, and observing local law enforcement, Soboroff has seen regional forces struggle under the weight of the crisis. For relief, he says that federal intervention would be necessary.

“If Ohio itself continues on the track that it’s on this year alone because of fentanyl, they’ll equal the number of deaths – or surpass – from 9/11. And what do you do when there’s a national tragedy on that scale?” said Soboroff. “You send in federal resources, you send in people to help because local officials can’t handle it.”

But beyond physical resources, Soboroff says that the discussion of the crisis in Washington needs to change to focus on policy, rather than solely on law enforcement.

“There are studies that indicate in states where medical marijuana is legal, overdoses and deaths from opioids are down,” said Soboroff. “But that becomes a complicated, partisan—in many respects—policy debate… Until ideological barriers, partisan barriers can come down around solutions to this, nothing is going to happen.”