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Congress must act to stop opioid crisis

The national statistics for deaths involving opioids are astonishing.

Drug overdoses in 2017 claimed the lives of a record breaking 72,300 people. National numbers, though, do not tell the whole story. Here locally, there were 796 people who died from an opioid-related overdose in Chicago in 2017 – more than the number of people who died from either shootings or car accidents that year.

According to the Chicago Department of Health, the Chicago Fire Department emergency responders handled 7,526 opioid-related overdoses in Chicago in 2017 which comes out to an average of 21 responses per day.

The most common overdoses involve the use of fentanyl. More than 90% of fatal overdose deaths are linked to fentanyl. In fact, the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased 533 percent from 2015-2017.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. It has virtually immediate effects and it is more potent than morphine as well as many types of heroin. It is easy to transport and a small amount can be deadly. According to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, fentanyl can be 50 times as potent as heroin. Even a dose the size of 2 milligrams (about the size of 4 grains of salt) can be enough to be lethal.

Restrictions on prescription medication has helped to substantially reduce the number of fatalities from prescription drugs. But the number of deaths associated with fentanyl is growing. About 75 percent of the 42,000 opioid-related deaths in 2016 were caused by illicit fentanyl and heroin.

There is no question that fentanyl is a dangerous drug and unfortunately, it is a drug that is easy to access. Fentanyl gets to the United States primarily through mail orders from China or it is smuggled into the country through the southern border.

In April 2018, state troopers seized a record-breaking 118 pounds of fentanyl in Nebraska. It was just a routine traffic stop that lead to the discovery of enough fentanyl to kill 26 million people.

The efforts being made by law enforcement on our border patrol agents is commendable, but we are barely scratching the surface in terms of getting this deadly drug off the streets.

Congress needs to act decisively in solving this crisis. Too many of our families are suffering from the loss of loved ones due to the opioid epidemic. We need to add more border patrol agents and make sure they are equipped with scanning devices to detect fentanyl and other deadly drugs.

We also must close the loopholes that are allowing China to use our own Postal System to get these drugs into the United States. We need to beef up the USPS screening standards and require them to provide Advance Electronic Data on international packages. This would help provide law enforcement with the tools they need to stop fentanyl from entering our country.

Finally, we must make sure our law enforcement officials are trained in how to handle fentanyl because it can be a threat to anyone who comes into contact with it, which can be very dangerous for law enforcement officials as well as first responders and public health workers.

The current opioid crisis is not something we can ignore. It is not going to disappear on its own. Congress must act to stop the flow of this deadly drug into our country. Chinese fentanyl smugglers and Mexican drug cartels must be stopped. Inaction is only going to lead to more drugs on the streets and families suffering. Let’s secure our border and protect our families before it is too late.

Jim Oberweis is the State Senator from Illinois' 25th District

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