The poisoning of America
It's time for a new drug strategy. The Biden administration's harm reduction strategy isn't working. America is in its worst drug abuse crisis in over a century. According to the CDC, over 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, and almost 950,000 have died since 1999; figures for 2022 show a slight decline in overdose deaths over the previous year. The leading killer is illicit fentanyl — a synthetic opioid so powerful that two milligrams can kill you. Fentanyl and methamphetamine come from Mexico; their chemicals come from China. Drug cartels make fentanyl and add it to heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and counterfeit prescription drugs. The fake drugs look like Xanax, Adderall, and other prescription drugs but are laced with fentanyl. It's easy to buy drugs on the internet and social media. Young people buy "Xanax" and die from fentanyl poisoning. Yet there is no outrage from our leaders.
New York had the heroin and crack epidemics of the '70s and '80s. The response was more enforcement and treatment, and it worked for a while. But since then, the drug problem has progressively worsened; drug enforcement and treatment are not priorities for our politicians and government leaders. All aspects of the drug problem have been given a low priority since the mid-'90s. Our society tolerates illicit drug use and has legalized marijuana use. Drug-traffickers exploit modern technology to their advantage, and the U.S. government lags behind. We suffer the consequences of three decades or more of failed and inconsistent strategies coupled with permissive attitudes toward drug use.
The Biden administration's drug strategy isn't working, and there is no urgency to address the problem. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush addressed the nation on TV to tell Americans what their government was doing about the drug problem. He announced the first National Drug Control Strategy, which contained substantial resource increases and a solid commitment to enforcement and treatment. He said, "[Drugs are] the greatest threat facing our nation today." The current administration rarely mentions the drug crisis. One can barely walk the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities without stepping over addicts, discarded syringes, and crack pipes. Violence in our major cities is often driven by drug-gang conflict. Such human misery is unacceptable in the wealthiest country on Earth.
What is our current drug strategy for China and Mexico? These countries are not cooperative and cite America's drug appetite as the problem — they are not wrong. U.S. border enforcement officials are overwhelmed by the flood of illegal aliens and cannot focus on drugs smuggled over the border.
Here are recommendations to save American lives.
First, we need a strategy that includes vigorous enforcement, drug treatment on demand, and education. The administration's Drug Policy Priorities hardly mention policies that work, such as preventing drug-smuggling, extraditing drug kingpins, and reducing supply. Instead, it focuses on harm reduction.
Second, the DEA needs more agents and a bigger budget. The annual budget and staff levels have remained at about $3 billion per year to support 5,000 special agents worldwide for three years. That's not enough to address the escalating U.S. drug crisis.
Third, the administration must use tougher trade sanctions and demand cooperation from China and Mexico. Banks and financial institutions in New York and Europe control transactions through the global banking system. The federal government should use this leverage against Chinese chemical companies, money-launderers, and Mexican drug cartels. The Chinese and Mexican governments must be responsible for chemical shipments and drugs that kill Americans. U.S. intelligence agencies should use technology to interfere with Mexican drug cartel communications.
Fourth, drug cartels control large swaths of Mexico and corrupt high-level government officials. In 2021, the López-Obrador administration took actions that made collaboration with the DEA virtually impossible. The U.S. should conduct unilateral raids and drone strikes on drug cartel hideouts, chemical and drug shipments, and processing labs to capture kingpins and destroy labs.
Fifth, pressure the Mexican government to extradite more drug-traffickers to the U.S. Conduct extraterritorial renditions to bring drug kingpins to justice, like terrorists. Extradition is the most effective weapon against drug lords. The unprecedented loss of American lives to drugs and widespread corruption in the Mexican government demand new approaches.
We know what works, and it's not complacency and business as usual.
Richard LaMagna was a DEA special agent for 27 years and was assigned to DEA offices in New York, Asia, Europe, and FBI and DEA HQ. He was director of counter-narcotics at the White House National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush. He retired as DEA deputy chief of intelligence. He runs LaMagna and Associates, LLC's security consulting firm in Washington, D.C.