There are many dimensions to the opioid crisis facing the United States. A public health emergency, border security crisis, and urgent public safety concerns all rolled into one, ending it once and for all will require an all-hands-on deck response from federal, state, and local law enforcement and policymakers. With over 110,000 drug overdose deaths reported in 2022 and 70 percent of these due to opiates, this response could not come soon enough.
Public awareness of addiction dangers and a strong effort to curb the over-prescribed use of legal opiates would have hopefully resulted in a reduction of drug overdose deaths. But despite these efforts, which resulted in a 44 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions from 2011 to 2020, the number of overdose deaths has steadily continued to rise.
The only plausible explanation for this disparity is the rise of illicit synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its analogs. A recent study from the National Center for Health Statistics found that drug overdose death rates involving fentanyl nearly quadrupled in the US from 2016 to 2021 while overdose deaths for oxycodone (a commonly prescribed painkiller) decreased during the study period.
Interdictions of fentanyl by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), a helpful proxy to gauge drug trafficking activity, have seen a near tenfold increase in the past five years demonstrating the staggering scale of this problem. Addressing the public safety risks stemming from the free-flowing traffic of migrants, drug smugglers, and illicit fentanyl that the Biden Administration has allowed into the country should be priority number one.
Now more than ever we need to provide law enforcement with resources to battle the influx of illegal fentanyl in our communities and to support quality, affordable treatment programs for those suffering from addiction. Fortunately, a $26 billion settlement with distributors and manufacturers of opioids, finalized in February of last year, will provide much-needed financial assistance to many states and communities across the country.
As a former police commissioner, I cannot overstate how impactful such resources will be in this fight. Pennsylvania, for example, is on track to receive over $1 billion from this settlement alone and is in the process of creating an “opioid trust” that will allocate funding to several policy priorities.
The city of Philadelphia plans to invest its funds in substance abuse education, treatment, prevention, and targeted engagement for those communities affected by the crisis. Neighboring Delaware County, meanwhile, will expand the use of Naloxone and medication assisted treatments, while increasing its support of drug courts and first responders.
Other counties in Pennsylvania intend to spend money on law enforcement initiatives such as drug task forces and dedicated detectives for opioid investigations, as well as for staff increases in coroners’ offices to respond more quickly to overdose deaths. This is all being done with a goal of levying more criminal charges against those dealing these deadly drugs.
While it is encouraging to see such initiatives play out in Pennsylvania, the issues at hand are bigger than just our state. Solving the opioid crisis once and for all will require regional and national cooperation across a score of private and governmental organizations. It is unfortunate that some states and localities have chosen to opt out of this opioid settlement in favor of drawn-out legal action.
Just two hours away from Philadelphia, another major city in the region, Baltimore, has opted to go this route. Washington state, under the guidance of Attorney General Bob Ferguson, has likewise adopted a similar tactic. Such a strategy is flawed because it not only denies citizens the resources needed to make an immediate impact in this crisis, but it could also jeopardize their arrival altogether as evidenced by the experience of Oklahoma.
Instead of settling, Oklahoma took its case all the way to the state Supreme Court and lost in a 5-1 decision, ultimately missing out on the opportunity to secure much-needed resources. It is unclear then, why Democratic officials in Washington state and Baltimore intend to use the same failed legal playbook. It appears that the lure of gaining political notoriety from attempting to successfully “beat” pharmaceutical companies in court has overshadowed the best interests of their constituents.
Rather than engaging in prolonged legal battles that leave those suffering from addiction unable to obtain treatment services and law enforcement agencies without a financial boost to expand their efforts in fighting the opioid crisis, states and municipalities should view these settlements as a model to gain quicker access to critical resources for new and innovative law enforcement programs. Ending the current opioid crisis for good will require an effort from many different segments of government and society, but law enforcement will be a key part of that equation. It’s time to make sure every agency is equipped with the needed resources to get down to work.
Becky Corbin is a former Commissioner of the Brandywine Regional Police. She was also a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 2013-2018 and served on the Health Committee. Her professional background and training is in the field of chemistry.