By: Kevin St. James – July, 2017
New Hampshire’s opioid epidemic is out of control. Last year, 500 people died from overdoses. This year promises to be worse — especially since drug traffickers have started lacing heroin and counterfeit painkillers with carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that is so deadly that first responders may need to wear hazmat suits while treating overdose patients.
As an advanced emergency medical technician and firefighter, I respond to overdose calls every week. I’ve seen an addict leave an ambulance and hospital to search for drugs, just minutes after being revived by EMTs. Like so many other Granite Staters, I’ve lost a family member to the epidemic.
I am deeply concerned that well-meaning politicians are about to make the problem worse. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is sponsoring a bill that would allow people to import packages of prescription drugs from Canada. New Hampshire’s Senator Maggie Hassan, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, and Minnesota Senator Al Franken all support the bill.
They’re making a mistake. This bill is intended to make prescriptions more affordable. But it would also make it easier for criminals to smuggle dangerous narcotics across the border. We can’t afford to make a horrifying crisis any worse.
Many addicts first get hooked on prescription painkillers. Pill addicts use to crush timed-release pain medicines, such as Oxycodone, into powder and snort it for an immediate high. Pharmaceutical companies responded by developing abuse-deterrent formulas that make it much harder to get high from crushing or liquefying pills.
In 2012, the FDA mandated that all Oxycodone sold in the United States be abuse deterrent.
No longer able to crush U.S. pills, addicts turned to foreign ones. At the moment, it’s illegal to buy prescriptions from abroad. But people skirt the law by traveling to Canada and bringing back drugs or ordering prescriptions through online Canadian pharmacies. Although law enforcement does its best, some of the packages slip through.
The postal service doesn’t require packages to provide the same electronic data as private carriers like FedEx. So drug dealers frequently ship illicit drugs into the United States through the mail.
In an attempt to slow this drug importation and alleviate the opioid crisis, the governors of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and Vermont wrote a letter in 2014 to the Canadian ambassador imploring Canada to adopt a similar abuse-deterrent requirement. But Canada rejected their plea.
So addicts keep crushing foreign pills for an immediate high. Eventually, many turn to heroin, which is cheaper. In the past few years, drug traffickers have made counterfeit foreign painkillers and heroin more lethal by adding fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine. They often press fentanyl into pills that look just like ordinary Oxycodone pills or other legitimate prescription drugs.
Addicts have no idea they’re taking a much stronger drug until it’s too late. More than 70 percent of New Hampshire overdose deaths involved fentanyl in 2016.
As Senator Hassan said in a recent statement touting the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, “The spread of fentanyl on our streets is exacerbating our heroin and opioid crisis . . . and the importation of fentanyl through the postal system is making our efforts to combat this crisis more difficult.”
Right now, fewer than 10 percent of Americans order medicines from abroad, since it is illegal. If importation were legalized, there’d be far more packages mailed from Canada to the United States.
Law enforcement doesn’t have the resources to check all these packages for illegal drugs or counterfeit pills. Canadian authorities don’t inspect shipments that originate in other countries and merely pass them through transport hubs en route for America. There’d be little stopping a drug lab in China from shipping pure fentanyl or carfentanil straight to dealers or addicts in New Hampshire.
Why on earth would Senator Hassan vote for a bill that makes our opioid epidemic even worse?
Kevin P. St. James is a current Rockingham County Commissioner, former State Representative, and firefighter. He was named 2016 Firefighter of the Year by the Exeter Fire Department.