The backdrop for their alarm is an increase in fatal drug overdoses during the Covid pandemic that has refused to abate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that illegal drugs killed 110,000 people last year, most of it driven by illicit fentanyl.
Emergent BioSolutions, the maker of the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan, sponsored the forum.
Here are three takeaways from the event, moderated by POLITICO’s Megan Messerly:
Some Democrats still want to throw the book at dealers
Progressives see a direct line between the war on drugs and mass incarceration and have pushed Democrats to legalize drugs, defund police and exercise prosecutorial discretion to alleviate the war’s costs, particularly for people of color.
But the three Democrats at POLITICO’s forum said they still see a place for law enforcement.
West defended a new Texas law that permits prosecutors to charge fentanyl dealers with murder and increases criminal penalties for the manufacturing or delivery of the drug.
“We’ve got to make certain that persons that deal with this issue understand that there are consequences,” West said.
Oregon’s Rosenblum acknowledged the fentanyl problem in Portland that’s grown worse since state voters legalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs in 2020.
“It’s everywhere. No one can deny it. If you do, you’ve just got blinders on,” she said, explaining that her office was “very strong on the interdiction of drugs, and very strong on prosecution” of dealers.
Asked about the drug war’s legacy, Cuellar said, “You can argue if it’s been successful or not successful.”
Mexico could do more
Cuellar rejected the call from some Republican hardliners to bomb the Mexican cartels.
But the border district lawmaker said that he, too, is frustrated with a lack of cooperation from the Mexican government, and with the Biden administration’s diplomacy.
“They can certainly do a lot more. We just need the administration to be a little firmer with Mexico,” Cuellar said.
Chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl from China enter Mexico through two ports on its Pacific coast, said Cuellar. Then criminal organizations make it into fentanyl.
Catching the drug at the U.S.–Mexico border, where tens of thousands of trucks, cars and trains pass every day, is difficult because the technology used to find drugs is designed to catch larger illegal drug shipments, he said.
Fentanyl comes in small quantities. It’s so potent that tiny amounts are enough to manufacture many counterfeit pills.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has at times extended a hand and at others denied that fentanyl is produced in his countryaccused U.S. lawmakers of scapegoating and said the U.S. might not have an overdose crisis if Americans hugged their children more.
“They do work with us,” Cuellar said of the Mexican government, but “the action doesn’t match the words.”
Naloxone and fentanyl test strips can save lives but resistance to the latter lingers
The panelists agreed there’s a need to make naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug that now comes as an over-the-counter nasal spray, available around the country, from schools to businesses.
“When you go now to places, fire stations in Laredo, and they have a dispensing place there where you can get Narcan, you know things have changed,” Cuellar said, using the brand name for naloxone.
Test strips, which people can use to check if the pills or drugs they plan to use are tainted with fentanyl, can also save lives, the speakers agreed.
But while most states have decriminalized them, some, including Texas, continue to treat them as drug paraphernalia.
A bill making strips legal, supported by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, died in the Texas Senate recently because some lawmakers believe legalization will give people more confidence to abuse drugsthe Dallas Morning News reported.
West, who also introduced a bill to decriminalize strips, said there’s not yet a consensus in the Texas Senate to do so.
“And, unfortunately, what will probably happen, the more and more deaths that are occasioned by the use of fentanyl, then the more there will be a willingness in order to decriminalize it,” he said.
“It is moving, and I think, ultimately, it will get done,” West added.