Fentanyl and meth: synthetic drugs cause record overdoses
The drug crisis that has plagued the United States for years has reached a major milestone during the pandemic. More than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the year to April, a nearly 30% jump from the previous year, according to data released this week by the National Center for Health. Statistics. This startling figure exceeds the number of deaths from traffic and firearms combined.
How did it happen? The Times spoke with Sam Quinones, who chronicled the drug trade in the 2015 book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” and recently explored the evolution of the epidemic in his new book “The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Age of Fentanyl and Methamphetamine.
Quinones is a former Times reporter. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Sam, this is the first time we’ve seen the number of overdose deaths in a year exceed 100,000. It’s easy to imagine how the pandemic has played a role in this outbreak – increasing anxiety and depression, cutting off access to treatment. But there seems to be a bit of a paradox here: a crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID-19, but also obscured by it.
Yes, and also completely deflated by it. Attention to the crisis really increased until February 2020, and then all the attention shifted to – I’m not saying badly – the pandemic. The problem was that it was at this precise moment that the Mexican trafficking world had achieved something that no other trafficker had achieved in the history of our country: blanketing the country with the most lethal drugs and the most mind-altering drugs we’ve ever seen. It had been built for years in this direction. We happened to isolate ourselves just as these drugs reached their peak.
You talk about synthetic drugs, and in particular methamphetamine and fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine. How does the potency of these drugs play into the evolving drug crisis?
These overdose figures are unprecedented because the situation on the streets is too. Never in the modern history of drug use – so around World War II, let’s say – have you seen the need for the drug trafficking world to mix drugs to make a profit. Not with crack, PCP, cocaine – it’s all ready to be sold, right? Now, for the traffic world to realize the kind of profits it expects to win the lottery, it has to mix it all up.
They mix with meth, mix with cocaine, and now we see reports of mixing with marijuana. Anyone selling knows that you just add fentanyl to your mix – whether you sell cocaine or meth, it doesn’t matter – and pretty soon you’re going to have a fentanyl addict buying it from you every day.
We live in a very, very different world. Previously, changes happened over decades: the 1970s were depressive; the 80s were crack, stimulants; the 90s, well, you didn’t really know. And so now it’s all together and all at once – in catastrophic quantities.
Let me ask you about this, because when it comes to something this addictive, I often wonder about the cyclical relationship between supply and demand. As people get hooked, it seems the synthetic nature of these products eases the barriers to mass production.
Law. You can make them all year round, provided you have access to the chemicals. These synthetic drugs don’t need seasons: you don’t need four months to make 50 kilos of methamphetamine, you need about a week. And if you have the chemicals, you can make those 50 pounds over and over and over and over.
With methamphetamine, it is no longer limited by a hard-to-reproduce precursor. You can do dreadful amounts with many different chemical procedures or hacks, right? You can do it this way, you can do it this way. The chemicals are different, but they’re all readily available, they’re all industrial, they’re legal. Of course, most of them are very poisonous, but there is lye, cyanide, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid. There are several ways to make this thing.
As a result, the drop in the price of methamphetamine in many regions is 80% or more. In the Nashville area, for example, methamphetamine cost $12.50 an ounce. Now it’s $2.25.
What about fentanyl?
First of all, the amount you need to make a huge profit is actually relatively small. And it’s quite easy to do. But with fentanyl, there is another problem. At first, it was Chinese companies that sent fentanyl directly through the mail – you buy it on the dark web, and they send you a kilo. But it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be able to reach the supply of fentanyl that we’re currently seeing with mail-in packages from China.
This quantity is due to the fact that it is now the world of Mexican traffic that does it, with these unlimited chemicals coming from the ports of the Pacific coast of Mexico, and which brings them through the border crossings among the millions of cars and of trucks that make round trips to the United States every year. The move was from China to Mexico, where the chemicals arrive in large numbers.
Geographically speaking, if that’s where the products come from, where do they go? When we look at overdose data from the past year, it seems to be affecting almost every corner of the United States.
Think about it: if you drive from coast to coast on the highways, you will see that American companies offer almost identical offers throughout the country. No matter where you are – you can find the Applebees, the Cracker Barrel, the same Hampton Inns and Motel 6s and Shell gas stations.
This is what the Mexican trafficking world has achieved with these two drugs in particular – fentanyl and methamphetamine. You can get them in Kentucky, you can get them in Los Angeles, you can get them in Oregon. They have built extensive distribution networks throughout the country. This too is unprecedented.
So it’s not the mom-and-pop shop, or even the In-N-Out. It’s McDonald’s, right?
McDonald’s or Walmart, yeah.
Can you tell us a bit about the demographics we’re seeing in overdose deaths? Many of us still think the crisis is primarily a rural, white problem. But these figures reflect the trend towards more diverse victims.
When I wrote “Dreamland” there were no non-whites involved. It was remarkable for that very reason – never before had we seen a uniracial drug plague in our country, as far as I know, or certainly anything of this magnitude. And it’s still largely white. it seems very clear to me.
But “The Least of Us” certainly brought African Americans into the mix for the first time in my reporting. African Americans are dying of opioid overdoses because African American drug dealers find out the same thing as any other drug dealer: I can put fentanyl in my cocaine. And if I do, I’ll soon be a fentanyl user. In my book, I talk about it in depth. The chapter I’m writing about this focuses on the first African American man to die in the city of Akron, which was one of the first cities to see the arrival of fentanyl. Mikey Tanner lived 10 years struggling with cocaine addiction, but didn’t live more than a month or two after fentanyl hit the drug supply.
That was years ago – at the start of fentanyl – but it foreshadowed something bigger, and that was that drug dealers in the African American community, like all other drug dealers across America , were beginning to realize that if you add fentanyl to anything you sell, you get a much more loyal customer. The negative, of course, is that you sometimes get a corpse.
That’s what probably happened to the comic strip at Venice Beach in early September, and most likely to Michael K. Williams, the great actor from “The Wire.” People first think they’re on cocaine, and they die with this stuff.
I’m curious how you think federal or state responses will need to change in light of this new data. There has long been a lot of hype about increasing access to naloxone and promoting its use. But what do you think is the best way to approach this – toughen up or ease up?
I’m afraid to answer this question, because I should go on for a while. And not because I have all the answers. But the idea of decriminalizing drugs – when those drugs are fentanyl and methamphetamine – strikes me as the height of misguided compassion. It’s not kind and merciful, it’s a death sentence, and it’s truly devastating.
Medicines have changed, but our way of thinking has not. Philosophies born out of another drug era need to be reassessed; the idea that law enforcement has no role to play in any of this is foolhardy.
The time has come to understand: it is not possible to be ready for treatment when you are on the streets addicted to fentanyl and synthetic methamphetamine. You will never be ready for treatment until these drugs kill you. Eventually, fentanyl will kill everyone who uses it.