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War on Fentanyl Smuggling Doomed, Experts Say

Tough talk about interdicting the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. from Mexico finds a broad consensus among drug policy experts: It won't work. NPR reports that fierce bipartisan pressure in Washington to do whatever it takes to block smuggling by Mexican drug cartels creates an unrealistic and doomed echo of the long-running war against other drugs smuggled from the south, such as heroin, cocaine and marijuana. "My belief is there's absolutely no way to stop it," said Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat who co-chaired a bipartisan commission on fentanyl smuggling. Mexico's former ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, agrees drug interdiction efforts likely won't stop fentanyl. "As long as both countries continue to hew to the old paradigms, which have not worked, absolutely not, we will not be moving the needle," Sarukhan told NPR.


Experts say fentanyl smuggling increased sharply in recent years. In 2022 alone, the DEA seized more than 50 million fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl along with more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. That's a doubling of fentanyl seizures from just a year before. It's widely believed far more fentanyl is reaching American streets. One flaw in the U.S. strategy, experts say, is that the Mexican government is simply too weak to take on the cartels no matter how much diplomatic pressure Washington applies. During the Trump administration, Mexico backed away from almost all drug interdiction partnerships with the U.S., and things haven't improved much since. The first time the U.S. can do anything about these drugs is when they cross the border, almost always passing through official checkpoints hidden in cars or commercial trucks driven by American citizens. President Biden and others have argued for improving technology designed to detect fentanyl at those crossings, but the drug is uniquely difficult to detect and stop. That doesn't mean the fentanyl crisis is hopeless. According to Trone, a more promising strategy is to focus on reducing American hunger for drugs. "That's the only chance we've got," he said. "Without the Mexican government's help, without the Chinese government's help, we can't win [against the smugglers]. So we have to go on the demand side, work on all the things with education, work on treatment, work on prevention."

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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