Cotton, panelists decry rise of fentanyl abuse, say border policy should change to fight it

Cotton, panelists decry rise of fentanyl abuse, say border policy should change to fight it

The misuse and abuse of fentanyl has heightened in the United States – especially in Arkansas – and securing the US-Mexico border would help fight this epidemic, US Sen. Tom Cotton argued early Tuesday.

“It’s gotten worse every year since I’ve been in public light,” said Cotton, who was joined by several state officials at a roundtable event he hosted. “In many cases, probably when I started in Congress about nine years ago, most Arkansans had not even heard of fentanyl – just an obscure, highly regulated pain drug for certain kinds of medical conditions.”

Cotton, R-Ark., also said fentanyl is unlike any drug the country has endured.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is often used for treating severe pain, such as advanced cancer.

It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And just two milligrams of fentanyl is considered a lethal dose, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Rates of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone – including fentanyl and fentanyl analogs – increased over 56% from 2019 to 2020, according to the CDC. The agency reported that more than 56.00 people died in 2020 from overdoses involving synthetic opioids.

The CDC also says most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death in the country are linked to fentanyl that is made and sold illegally. The agency said fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, with or without the user’s knowledge.

Collar. Bill Bryant with the Arkansas State Police said at the roundtable, “Unfortunately, Mexican drug trafficking organizations” use the same major highways – Interstate 55, Interstate 30, and Interstate 40 – that average Arkansans use.

So the Interstate Criminal Patrol Team for the state police serves as a “good gauge” for what comes into the state, he said.

“What we’re seeing is definitely an increase of fentanyl – it’s coming across the southwest border and the border stays coming to Arkansas and through Arkansas,” Bryant said. “Arkansas’ not the only state in the United States affected by fentanyl.”

He said the agency is mostly seeing counterfeit pills – such as M30 pills which mimic Oxycodone pills but contain fentanyl – being sold on “the streets.”

“We recently, about a month ago, seized over 56 pounds of fentanyl pills, equivalent to I think it was like over one million tablets,” Bryant said.

Several of the panelists agreed with Cotton that closing the border would help with the crisis.

Cotton said that won’t solve the problem completely, but it’d still “go a long way toward solving it.”

He also said there should be an approach in place when it comes to the cartel because “they’re responsible for almost every drug in this country now.”

Boyce Hamlet, Arkansas Drug Director, said the fentanyl epidemic is going to take a lot of lives and “securing the border” would help.

“We’re in a dangerous situation,” Hamlet said. “I would like to say, at the federal level, the main thing that could be done that would help us get in front of this is we have to secure the border. And I’m not trying to be political, I’m just being honest.”

Bud Cummins, former US Attorney, agreed, but said investing in other resources would help as well. He said more money needs to go toward treatment and taking a more “holistic approach.”

“The recovery [and] substance abuse treatment is critical, and our Medicaid reimburses about half the cost of an inpatient. A lot of these providers are treating people for free…we really need to try to steer more resources that way,” he said.

“But we also have to look at politics; we have to close the border. It’s insane, and that’s a totally political move to leave it open and it has to be closed – they’re killing our kids,” Cummins said.

Also at the roundtable, Cotton honored Dr. Kristen Martin, CEO and medical director of River Valley Medical Wellness, for her efforts to raise awareness and combat drug addictions in Arkansas.

River Valley Medical Wellness offers addiction care to patients and their families. According to its website, its offerings include evidence-based treatment, individualized treatment plans, medication assisted treatment, therapy, peer recovery support specialist services, and more.

Martin described how her organization stepped up when a large treatment center suddenly closed at the beginning of the pandemic.

While in a meeting with a therapist, Martin said she got a call from a peer recovery support specialist supervisor.

“He called and he said, ‘Our facility has gone down, I have 300 patients and no one to care for them.’ We sat there and it just made me sick to my stomach and I was worried. There was a pandemic, an economic crisis, and an opioid crisis,” she said.

The doctor said River Valley Medical Wellness responded by setting up a clinic in a week.

“My first year of covid, as Senator Cotton pointed out, I saw more cases of overdose and mental health crises in my emergency room than I did cases of covid,” Martin said. “I will tell you as a physician, there is nothing more heartbreaking than having to call a mother or father and tell them that their child has died from overdosing.”

Martin is also known for traveling between treatment centers and visiting rural environments to help those who may not have access to health care for drug addiction.

The doctor said Tuesday that she’s working with other officials to apply for grants and funding to develop mobile units that could be deployed in local communities that are “problem areas” and need substance abuse resources.

Candance DeMatteis with Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative said it’s important to reduce the stigma against drug addiction and embrace those that struggle as a community.

“We have a role as the parents, but we as a community have a role in educating people and telling about the risk,” she said.

Martin said, “This is a fight where we need all hands on deck. We can win this battle if we each do our part.”

National Drug Take Back Day is 10 am to 2 pm Saturday. There are over 250 locations across Arkansas where people can safely dispose of unused or expired prescription drugs. For more information, visit https://artakeback.org/.

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