Credit: George Danby

What if I told you that a lab-made chemical readily available for purchase over the internet can kill a human when our skin contacts an amount the size of a few grains of sand, has been found in significantly dangerous quantities around the country, and is causing the deaths of Mainers at a skyrocketing rate. You’d think that I’m talking about some sort of chemical weapon — maybe a recently unearthed stockpile from the Cold War, or a new way for terrorists to get past our defenses. You’d rightfully hope that the authorities are doing all they can to confront this new threat.

The chemical I’m describing is actually fentanyl — a man-made, or synthetic, opioid 50 times more lethal than heroin. The drug is so deadly that 33 pounds recently seized in a Boston drug bust would be enough to wipe out every one of the nearly 7 million residents of Massachusetts. That’s right — this stuff is so potent that an amount weighing about the same as 4 gallons of milk is enough to kill millions of people.

We’re talking about a new category of danger beyond prescription painkillers and heroin. This threat requires a new level of focus and a new type of response.

As the Senate chair of the Legislature’s special task force appointed to address Maine’s opioid crisis, I was part of a process that considered several facets of the drug epidemic our region faces — from a health care, law enforcement, treatment or even workforce perspective.

One of my conclusions from our work, and from a burst of news stories about the alarming quantities of fentanyl being seized around the country, is that we are failing to stem the tide of fentanyl.

Just consider a few recent cases where enough foreign fentanyl to devast millions of Americans was discovered:

— In June 2017, 100 pounds of fentanyl was seized in a New Jersey drug raid. That’s enough fentanyl to kill all of New Jersey and New York City — nearly 18 million people.

— In October 2017, 33 pounds of fentanyl was seized in Nebraska in a random search.

— In December 2017, a man was arrested while trying to bring 88 pounds of fentanyl into the U.S. from Mexico.

Here’s the common denominator in these cases: fentanyl was manufactured outside our country and at times easily imported into the United States. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration says that the vast majority of fentanyl in our country comes from Mexico and China.

Given that this superdrug contributed to an 11 percent spike in Maine overdose deaths last year, following a 40 percent spike in 2016, and all indications point to the problem worsening — particularly given that fentanyl overdose deaths nationwide rose 545 percent between 2010 and 2016. And a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Psychiatry found that, for the first time in history, synthetic opioids killed more Americans than prescription drugs.

Before this dangerous drug becomes a household word in Maine, we have to understand and slow the fentanyl pipeline. As with “ bath salts” years ago, swift action must be taken to react to this new threat. Because the majority of the drug comes to the U.S. over the border, that means we have to put a new focus on stopping the killer drug as it travels here.

Partially, this is a diplomatic problem, and more pressure needs to be put on source countries to stop putting American citizens at risk from this opioid. In particular, China must do more given its status as the primary host of the labs that create fentanyl or the chemicals used to produce it.

This is also a problem that U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Postal Service and private-sector mail companies like FedEx and UPS need to confront, because the drug is frequently mailed into the U.S. — sometimes after being ordered on the internet. It’s clear that we need better controls over what is shipped into our country.

Fighting back against opioids has led us to spend a lot of time on treatment, prevention and education. I strongly believe that, given the scale of this threat, it’s now time to focus on tightening border controls so we can crack down on this superdrug coming into our country.

To keep Mainers safe, we have to stop the flow of fentanyl at the border and in our communities. Given the horrifying potency of this man-made killer, there is no more urgent anti-drug priority.

Andre Cushing is serving his third term representing Senate District 10. He is the Senate chair of the Legislature’s special opioid epidemic task force.

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