U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-Pennsylvania, led Wednesday’s meeting of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that focused on stopping the flow of deadly fentanyl and other illicit drugs over the nation’s southern border.
“In 2002, the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] seized more than 379 million lethal doses of fentanyl – enough to kill each and every American,” Joyce said in opening remarks on the second day of the committee convening in the 118th Congress.
He chaired the roundtable discussion because Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who took up the gavel Monday, was absent due to a work scheduling conflict.
The committee referenced recent news from the DEA that nationwide seizures last year totaled over 50.6 million fentanyl pills and more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder.
Joyce, a physician, drew broad agreement from GOP leaders at the table that the Schedule I temporary designation of fentanyl-related substances should be made permanent. They felt greater penalties were needed when traffickers were caught to act as a deterrent to criminal activity.
“It should be a priority,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida. “This is poison. It’s a weapon of mass destruction.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Although fentanyl is a prescription drug used to treat patients with severe pain, it becomes dangerous when manufactured illegally for its heroin-like effect.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that illegal fentanyl powder is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency, which makes it dangerous.
Much of the illegal fentanyl is sourced from China and then transported through many different means into the U.S., noted committee members.
It only takes two milligrams of fentanyl, the size of 10 to 15 grains of salt, to kill, said Deb Cullen, who lost her 22-year-old son Zachary to illegal fentanyl.
“One packet of Sweet ‘N Low filled with fentanyl is enough to kill 500 people,” she said.
Deb and her husband, Paul Cullen, had been invited to Capitol Hill to put the human face on what Joyce and others called a “war” on youth. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for people 18-45 years old in the U.S., according to the CDC.
“Our son did not die of an accidental overdose, he was poisoned – actually he was murdered,” said Deb. “It is a very real life game of Russian Roulette and most of the time, they don’t even know they are taking it.”
The highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded by the CDC was for a 12-month period ending in March 2022: Provisional data estimated over 110,000 deaths, primarily from fentanyl, during that time period.
Although new numbers from the CDC show a 2.27% decrease in overdose deaths, the fatality rate is still far too high, said Joyce, drawing agreement from other committee members.
The Cullens said there was an urgent need for Congress to act quickly to secure the nation’s borders to reduce the availability of fentanyl.
“I struggle to understand why our government is not making it a priority to stop the loss of so many lives,” said Deb. “We need you to take over so we can take the time to grieve our horrible loss.”
She and Paul felt that young people needed more education about the dangers of fentanyl and asked the committee to undertake a public awareness campaign.
Zachary, they said, died after using cocaine laced with fentanyl while at a birthday party with friends. They said their son was not an addict, but they had learned that he used drugs recreationally from time to time.
“That was a poor decision but it should not have been fatal,” said Deb.
Paul asked the committee to address the role that social media plays in drug trafficking. He said there were plenty of online sites where teens and young adults could arrange to buy illegal substances.
“Social media companies are not doing enough to self-regulate,” he said. “There needs to be greater transparency and accountability.”
Committee members agreed to investigate that issue further.
Rep. Mike Burgess, R-Texas, said Democrats in control of the federal government for the last two years had blocked GOP efforts to make Schedule I status permanent. He said Democrats appeared more concerned about creating more potential penalties for offenders than protecting youth and other vulnerable populations.
“I don’t know why they step away from this instead of moving forward,” said Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Kentucky.
Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said it was virtually impossible to stop the movement of fentanyl without securing the southern border, something the Biden administration refused to do.
“Our border patrol agents are now social workers,” he said.
In addition to the Cullens, the committee heard reports from Paul Knierim, former assistant administrator and chief of intelligence for the DEA, and Dr. Timothy Westlake, an emergency medical physician from Wisconsin.
Knierim said two drug cartels in Mexico were responsible for the majority of trafficking into the U.S. and the DEA was “laser focused” on defeating them.
Westlake had advocated for the Schedule I classification of fentanyl and was now behind the push to make that designation permanent.
“As you can imagine, telling parents that their children will never come home is the worst part of my job,” he said.
After listening to testimony and questioning guests for 90 minutes, Joyce said the committee would start working on new policies to battle fentanyl trafficking.