The United States consumes 85% of all the world’s natural and synthetic opiates, which in 2015 factored in 33,091 U.S. deaths, up more than 4000 from the previous year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. When average U.S. life expectancies for men and women edged downward last year, for the first time in decades, many health professionals blamed opiate abuse.
The opium poppy is no longer the starting point for many of the opiates on the street. The new compounds, often sold mixed with heroin, originate in illicit labs in China. “For the cartels, why wait for a field of poppies to grow and harvest if you can get your hands on the precursor chemicals and cook a batch of fentanyl in a lab?” says Tim Reagan, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) Cincinnati office.
In late 2015, the drug agency persuaded its Chinese counterpart to add 116 synthetic drugs to its list of controlled substances; fentanyl and several analogs were included. In response, underground Chinese labs began tweaking the fentanyl molecule, which is easy to alter for anyone with basic knowledge of chemistry and lab tools. By adding chemical groups, unscrupulous chemists have created new, unregulated variants, some of them even more potent than the original.
Hoping to stem the tide of synthetic opiates, DEA has taken the fight to China, as prolific a maker of illicit drugs as it is of legitimate chemicals. According to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report last month, “China is a global source of illicit fentanyl and other [new psychoactive substances] because the country’s vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries are weakly regulated and poorly monitored.” In response to U.S. pressure, China has scheduled fentanyl and several other derivatives. More here.
Even by Portland standards, the weather was dreary on the day Aisha Zughbieh-Collins died.
It was late morning Feb. 16 when Jessica Collins drove through a 40-degree drizzle to the pink and yellow townhouse on Southeast 84th Avenue, where Aisha, her 18-year-old daughter, lived.
Collins drove gingerly down the rutted, dead-end gravel street. It’s the kind of street that’s often lined with abandoned shopping carts.
She got out of her truck, walked into Aisha’s townhouse and climbed the stairs with a sense of dread. For the past 12 hours, Collins had been unable to reach her daughter.
Just two weeks earlier, Aisha had overdosed, her life saved when a roommate called paramedics.
As Collins entered her daughter’s bedroom, Aisha was sitting lotus-style on her bed.
“Each step closer I could tell something was really wrong,” Collins recalls.
Aisha had a syringe in her right arm, and a shoelace tourniquet tied around her biceps. She wasn’t breathing. Her skin was cold.
“I know it sounds strange,” Collins says, “but a sense of peace came over me—that she’s OK now—even though she was dead in front of me.”
Drug overdoses now kill more people than firearms or automobile crashes in Oregon, according to state figures, and are the largest cause of accidental death in the U.S. As the country’s overdose death total continues to soar, Oregon officials have responded far more effectively than officials in most states (see chart below).