New Issue Brief: Combatting Fentanyl, Meth, and Other Synthetic Drugs
NEW YORK, NY — In less than a decade, from 2015 to 2021, the number of overdose deaths caused solely by the two most historically lethal drugs—heroin and cocaine—dropped by more than half. That isolated statistic might suggest America’s overdose crisis is finally abating. However, drug overdose deaths actually soared to over 100,000 per year, with synthetic fentanyl and its analogues now outcompeting heroin. In 2021, 66% of the 106,699 total drug-involved overdose deaths were associated with synthetic drugs.
In a new issue brief for the Manhattan Institute, drug policy analysts Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University and Keith Humphreys of Stanford University offer a comprehensive plan for addressing the rising challenges posed by synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, methamphetamine, xylazine, and benzodiazepines. Plant-derived drugs like heroin or cocaine require farmland, as well as agricultural labor, the authors point out, whereas synthetic drugs can be produced by almost anyone using recipes and precursor chemical ingredients readily available online. What’s more, producing fentanyl is up to 100 times cheaper than producing heroin, per dose. These conditions undermine police efforts to disrupt supply, since seized synthetic drugs are cheaper and faster to replace. Likewise, trafficking organizations that are shut down can swiftly be replaced. The authors offer solutions that target these realities.
Rather than stressing operations at the border or abroad, the authors suggest drug policy changes closer to home. All four traditional pillars of domestic drug policy—enforcement, treatment, prevention, and harm reduction—need to be updated and tailored to the synthetic drug threat by:
- Maintaining prohibition of the production and sale of these drugs;
- Expecting law enforcement to shrink market-related harms, like violence, but having a realistic outlook on their ability to address availability;
- Continuing to expand medication-assisted treatment and access to naloxone;
- Embracing the shunning of illegal drugs as a cultural norm;
- Being generous towards those who are struggling for whatever reason, including with drug addiction.
There are no silver bullets; even with these changes the scope of the problem is daunting. But more lives can be saved by sharpening the U.S.’s domestic policy response.