In 1958, Leonard A. Read penned the timeless, iconic essay, "I, Pencil." His eloquent message, told from the perspective of the simple pencil, has served to instruct millions of people on how the complexity and brilliance of the free market economy — versus a socialist, centrally planned one — has been nothing less than a miracle in the practical application of uplifting mankind. The following is meant to pay homage to Read's formidable use of the first person, this time conveyed from a dangerous psychoactive drug, to demonstrate the destructive consequences of failing to combat criminal enterprises in their aggressive predation of society.
I am fentanyl — an ordinary chemical of extraordinary power. I am both a useful medicine and a fiendish poison. I was created as a synthetic alternative to the narcotic drugs naturally found in the opium plant. Depending on my molecular variety, or analogue, I can be as much as 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Like heroin, named after the German word "heroic" for its astonishing strength, I am now more powerful and profuse than my opium-based cousin in the human desire for psychoactive "recreation."
You may wonder why I should write about my presence and lineage. Well, not only is my story interesting and mysterious, but I also kill tens of thousands of people every year — nearly 300 every single day in America — and that doesn't include the multitudes of others across the globe that I put into a willing, blissful sleep, never to awaken. Yet, seemingly, your government leaders find it intolerable to fight me through the simple (albeit difficult) enforcement of laws and regulations designed to protect your citizens. Instead, they prefer only the morally soothing remedies of compassion-based programs that avoid "distasteful" measures such as arresting and imprisoning those who deliver me unlawfully. But society's choices concerning illegal drugs are actually not between right and wrong, but between the distasteful and the catastrophic.
I, fentanyl, can be snorted, smoked, swallowed, injected, trans-dermally absorbed, or even "hooped" — that is, anally inserted to be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream as well as to bypass the body's filtering systems. This last method of ingestion was made famous by a man renowned, perhaps even deified, for dying with a policeman's knee on the back of his neck. But my presence in George Floyd's system at nearly four times the normal lethal level was wholly ignored by your legacy media. Good for me.
We can begin my story with a teenage girl located in Anytown, USA. I killed her. I, and a modern culture too afraid to use the language of morality in telling young people that using illegal drugs is wrong. And it's "wrong," instructed the late social scientist James Q. Wilson, because "it's immoral. And it's immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul." Also, of course, life.
She was given a single pill by her friend, who told her that taking it would be an amazing ride, like experiencing an extended orgasm, like seeing God. The pill contained just a microgram too much of me to make it deadly — like so many of the pills secretly made by my criminal makers without the demanding cautions required of such powerful substances. The DEA's Special Testing Laboratory recently found that six of every ten pills sold by dealers today contain a potentially deadly dose of me due to the carelessness of my clandestine producers. And that same agency, overwhelmed and under-supported by its own government, has also said that 379 million deadly doses of me in pill and powder form were seized last year alone — enough to kill every person in America, and then some.
The pill given to my young victim was sold to her dealer by a local representative of one of the many Mexican drug cartel "emissaries" who have set up shop in her area. In fact, the various cartels — single-minded, predatory, violent — have a presence in over 3,000 American cities and towns. They are here solely to sell me, and other neurochemical pleasures, to your citizens. There may be no better modern example of Cicero's warning to his fellow Romans about allowing an enemy within the gates.
That pill was one of many among ever-increasing numbers of shipments of me in various forms — powders, pills, liquids — smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border, along with other illegal commodities like methamphetamine, cocaine, and people, almost at will, given the chosen fecklessness of your current White House. This particular shipment of me was manufactured in a crude, makeshift lab in the mountains of Sinaloa, not by chemists, but by unsophisticated thugs merely following a recipe. I was then pressed into pills after being mixed unevenly with binders and fillers that sloppily created countless deadly "hot loads." Often, I am also blended with other drugs to generate infatuation and addiction among the users of cocaine and meth. The cartels' strategy in distributing me is as ruthless as it is terrifyingly effective and profitable.
I, fentanyl, was created in this primitive, illicit lab — and many others like it across Mexico — by cooking my chemical precursor, known as NPP (or its close equivalent, 4-ANPP) with a handful of other essential ingredients, all costing only about $800 to synthesize twenty-five grams of pure dope that is then pressed into enough pills to fetch $800,000 in the neighborhoods across America. Think about that: a profit margin of 1,000 percent! That's why, along with the "godlike" sensations that I can provide to the human brain, I will not be easily given up by either the Mexican cartels or my users. Best of all, my conversion from NPP not only is realized at a one-to-one ratio, but is easier to make than meth!
My precursors, like the chemicals my villainous manufacturers acquire to make methamphetamine in ton quantities, come from China. Colluding with their Chinese organized crime partners in the various Triads, my outlaw Mexican makers easily arrange for the acquisition and shipment of their chemicals from one of the nearly 400,000 chemical companies operating in that communist country. China's government, like Mexico's, allows the bad guys to operate through an intricate vortex of corruption that serves the ultimate goals of both the transnational criminal groups and the politicos, while taking you for granted. Again, good for me.
So, in short, with such weak — or, as some would suggest, complicit — Washington leadership responsible for protecting your homeland, I, fentanyl, win, and your people lose. They lose to my astonishing ability to create not just addiction and death, but crime and decay.
If you think you can fight me with only your caring and therapeutic programs, think again. Many of your compassion-based arrangements serve only to create and exacerbate suffering and death while fostering proliferating armies of counselors and specialists and health care structures that mostly just allow the harm reduction hordes to feel good about themselves. Should you doubt me, one need only look at how my meteoric rise was spawned by your pharmaceutical industry hoodwinking an entire nation that their every pain must be "managed" by their legal dope.
I, fentanyl, know that drug treatment and prevention programs are necessary and can be effective but that they're strategically effective only if simultaneously controlling my availability — and those who make it so — across your society by enforcing your laws, protecting your borders, and preventing corrupt governments and corrupt elements within your own government from exploiting your citizens.
My lesson is simple: given my awesome power to enslave and destroy, you no longer have the luxury (as if you ever did!) of believing in the utopian fantasy of solely controlling the problem of illegal drug use and trafficking through your oft-misplaced compassion, while speciously deriding all enforcement-oriented measures as part of some failed "war." You will subdue my "recreational" abuse only by demanding individual self-control among your people. Any government rubric, whether oriented toward supply or demand, can only ever be part of the solution. You will need to remind your people — often — that freedom is important not only for doing what you want, but also, and especially, for doing what you ought, as Lord Acton so eloquently warned.
Your society — indeed, your civilization — is worth fighting for. And, whether you wish to recognize it or not, fight you must. Unless your meek and endlessly tolerant society earnestly begins to battle my wicked purveyors, and those criminal, governmental, and commercial structures that support them, I, fentanyl, will destroy everything and everyone in my path.
The choice is yours.
Jeff Stamm is a 40-year law enforcement veteran, having served as a deputy sheriff in Sacramento County, California; a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; and the executive director of the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). He is also the author of On Dope: Drug Enforcement and the First Policeman.