Why the DOJ’s plan to combat opioids through international cooperation won’t work

No amount of friendly global law enforcement changes the fact that opioid addiction is a public health crisis.

Law enforcement officials appear before a drug distribution poster during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, to announce the indictments of two Chinese fentanyl trackers in the fight against opiate substances. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Law enforcement officials appear before a drug distribution poster during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, to announce the indictments of two Chinese fentanyl trackers in the fight against opiate substances. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Amid much fanfare, the Department of Justice in October announced criminal indictments against two Chinese nationals for manufacturing and importing the opioid fentanyl. The case marked the first time Chinese citizens had been indicted on fentanyl smuggling and showed that U.S. law enforcement was attempting to stem of the flow of opioids through co-operation with international allies. Unfortunately, while the policy looks good on paper, in practice, it’s not good enough.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more powerful than regular heroin, is one of the most dangerous drugs in the United States today. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) 2017 National Drug Assessment, it is “primarily sourced from China and Mexico and shipped directly to the United States or trafficked overland via Mexico and Canada” and heavily contributes to the current opioid epidemic plaguing much of the nation. According to the report, “Traffickers in the United States usually mix fentanyl into heroin products and sometimes other illicit drugs, or press it into counterfeit prescription pills, often without users’ awareness, which leads to overdose incidents.”

Making matters worse is the fact that more traditional forms of heroin continue to thrive in the United States simultaneously. According to the DEA’s report, “Black tar heroin…brown powder heroin and heroin refined or crudely manufactured in Mexico [continue] to dominate markets west of the Mississippi.”

In this environment, U.S. law enforcement has become increasingly eager to co-operate with China, as well as bulk up joint operations with Mexican security services. In September last year, the acting head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, met with his Chinese counterpart to discuss how to stem the flow of fentanyl from China to the United States. The pair followed up with another face-to-face discussion in January.

“This week’s meetings with China’s Ministry of Public Security reinforced the commitment between our agencies to address the synthetic drug crisis which affects our nation,” Rosenberg said following the second meet-up. “These meetings underscore our improving relationship and cooperative effort to work to stem the flow of dangerous synthetic chemicals.”

That sort of international cooperation has drawn praise for its supposed ingenuity, but the reality is that no amount of law enforcement focus will make a significant dent in combating the opioid epidemic. Sessions’ Department of Justice is simply re-playing the United States’ 40-year-old record of prohibitionist policies — with new sidekicks. And as with prohibition, this war on drugs is also unlikely to work.

On its face, U.S. law enforcement asking for cooperation from China and Mexico alone might seem puzzling, since President Trump spent much of his campaign and the majority of his tenure in office so far antagonizing both countries, whether with promises to label China a currency manipulator or the threat of a wall across America’s southern border. However, according to Sanho Tree, drug policy director at the Institute of Policy Studies, it’s unlikely that the Chinese government would pull back on law enforcement cooperation, even with Trump’s constant threats.

“It’s rarely ever happened [in the past],” he told ThinkProgress. “Even during the Cold War with Cuba, one area of co-operation was drug enforcement. Authoritarian regimes do pride themselves on their law and order policies.”

Nathan Jones, an expert on drug violence in Mexico, said the same was true of cooperation with Mexican security services.

“A lot of co-operation happens on the bureaucratic level,” he said. “This build-up in relations began as formalized task forces [in the early 2000s], they built relations between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement, and it paid positive dividends in quiet ways you can’t see.”

But according to Tree, the sheer amount of commerce that occurs every day between the countries makes it all but impossible to effectively police, even with international law-enforcement working side by side.

“The amount of commerce between [China and the United States] is mind boggling,” he said. “How do you even begin to police that? Imagine having a billion people and being told ‘Go [find the drug smugglers].’ China has enough problems with not poisoning its own people.”

According to Tree, the DOJ’s efforts to show off their multinational cooperation with China in fighting the drug war amounts to little more than a global public relations campaign. Historically, there are very few cases where supply-side policing had made any sort of meaningful dent in drug consumption. What’s more, by focusing on drug precursors (i.e. their ingredients), law enforcement is inadvertently pushing manufacturers toward newer, more dangerous cocktails.

“This is the irony of how enforcement makes drugs more powerful and easier to produce,” Tree said. “It’s like prohibition, when there was a transformation from a nation of beer and wine drinkers into a nation of hard liquor drinkers. It was also Ronald Reagan’s war on marijuana, which made Colombian traffickers realize that they could sell cocaine in the United States more lucratively.”

Meanwhile on the Mexican border, both Jones and Tree agree that Trump’s proposed border wall would be a disaster and would make crossing and smuggling goods across the border more expensive — hence driving up profits for the cartels.

“Even if [the wall] nominally raised security it would only increase [opiate] prices, just increasing the sophistication and consolidating power in profits in organizations that have capital capability,” Jones said.

Tree added, “Their idea is that the wall would stop opiates, but the wall would make the problem astronomically worse. If you cut heroin [imports] by 30 percent — which is an optimistic number — traffickers would take the remaining amount and adulterate it with fentanyl to stretch their products.”

What’s more, Jones said, by building the wall, the Trump administration could help inadvertently fuel Mexican nationalism, making legal institutions less willing to cooperate with U.S. authorities in stemming the tide of opioids. “If the presidential rhetoric leads to nationalism [in Mexico] then Trump’s world becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he added.

But both Jones and Tree agree that no amount of international cooperation will help to create policies which truly solve the problem, so long as officials continue to look at it through an enforcement lens rather than from a public health angle, as countries like Canada have done. There, public health policies like supervised injection sites or Canada’s prescription heroin program have actually made a difference, whereas, in the United States, Sessions’ DOJ is pursuing the exact opposite.

“Nearly every comment out of Session’s mouth on opiate policy is wrong,” Jones said. “They’re re-trenching into 40-year-old policies while the rest of the [world] moves in the opposite direction.”