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Fear of Fentanyl Going Into Moral Panic Mode - 2022 09 28 10 12 44

Last Friday, hundreds of families shattered by fentanyl overdoses rallied outside of the White House for more decisive government action. And indeed, at both local and national level, policy responses to the epidemic are becoming more sweeping, drastic, and punitive. (Washington Post)

NH: In our frequent NewsWires on fentanyl, we have often noted the odd juxtaposition between the drug's terrifying mortality trajectory and the leisurely pace of public policy response. (See "Fentanyl Epidemic Accelerates" and "Drug Overdose Deaths Continue Their Relentless Rise.”)

It has long been clear that fentanyl poses an unprecedented public health threat. It's a highly addictive opioid that is (a) cheap to fabricate, (b) deadly in very small quantities (2 mg will kill), (c) convenient for smuggling or mailing, and (d) easy to cut into other illegal drugs or to add into fake prescription medications. 

In the 12 months ending in April 2022, 73K people died from synthetic opioid (i.e., fentanyl) overdoses. That's an astonishing rise of +11.3% YoY and +122.7% from April 2019.

Fear of Fentanyl Going Into Moral Panic Mode - Sept28

Thus far, the government response to this growing catastrophe has been business as usual, limited mostly to traditional drug enforcement and public outreach. But now the mood may be changing. 

For the first time, punishment against fentanyl drug dealers is going to the max. 

  • On the state level, prosecutors are responding to public outrage by charging fentanyl dealers, even first-time offenders, with murder. Any google search will reveal countless instances over the last couple of months. For example, in Tennessee, a man was indicted on second-degree murder charges after a woman to whom he sold fentanyl overdosed while driving. A San Bernardino 18-year-old was charged with murder after selling fentanyl to a customer who died.
  • On the federal level, a judge just sentenced a Minnesota man to life in prison for selling fentanyl that killed 11 people. His customers believed they were buying a stimulant similar to Adderall. Earlier in September, Marco Rubio introduced a bill to make selling fentanyl that leads to death "punishable by federal felony murder charges," which would result in tougher sentencing.

Parental fear is on the rise

  • Local news outlets have published a flurry of articles on the dangers rainbow-colored fentanyl poses to children. While drug dealers probably aren't targeting kids, parents are worried their children might mistakenly consume the candy-colored pills from an adult's stash. A DEA report on this threat has understandably sparked fears of accidental overdoses during Halloween
  • Gen-X parents are already notorious for their hands-on protective parenting style. Rainbow fentanyl will push many of them into survival mode. A grand jury just indicted two Colorado dealers on first-degree murder charges for just such an act of parental neglect: Their toddler got into their fentanyl stash and overdosed. 

Border states are increasingly linking fentanyl to immigration. 

  • In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters that "fentanyl is a clandestine killer, and Texans are falling victim to the Mexican cartels that are producing it." He then signed an executive order symbolically designating cartels as terrorist organizations. He also sent a letter to the White House requesting the federal government to do the same. 
  • In April, Abbott also ordered enhanced inspections of commercial trucks crossing the border. After massive backups, he reached deals with four Mexican governors to stop the inspections in exchange for increased security on the Mexican side of the border. Apparently, a governor is now attempting to conduct foreign policy.

Geopolitical fears are also rising.

  • 18 state attorneys general signed a letter to Biden urging him to classify fentanyl as a "weapon of mass destruction." They argue that the drug kills tens of thousands of Americans annually, and foreign adversaries could easily weaponize it. (Russia used a gas form of the drug during the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, which resulted in 119 deaths.) This unorthodox approach would give the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense jurisdiction to fight the epidemic. They argue that would add significantly more manpower and resources to the DEA's efforts.
  • This plays off a larger fear that the world is becoming more dangerous and America is more isolated. It also suggests foreign adversaries may be involved in fentanyl's distribution. It's well established that two large Mexican cartels, Sinaloa and the New Generation Jalisco, produce most of the fentanyl coming into the United States and that they receive the chemical ingredients from China wholesalers. American diplomatic efforts to get China to ban these chemical exports have resulted in only nominal compliance

All in all, the fentanyl epidemic may become a significant issue in the upcoming midterms. Each party has an angle to play.

In general, moral panic usually helps conservatives. And any call for a harder line on crime and immigration will certainly help Republicans. It may be giving a boost to incumbent Ron Johnson (R-WI) in his close race against Mandela Barnes, a progressive Democratic who has in the past called for "defunding police."

The call for a large-scale national response, on the other hand, usually favors Democrats, especially now that so many Republicans are vilifying federal law-enforcement agencies as tools of the deep state. So far, Biden has not called for such a response--which may be a lost opportunity for the Democrats.

Instead, it's mostly Republicans. For example, most of the attorneys general urging Biden to give DHS and DOD greater enforcement powers were Republicans. On a national level, this message may generate message confusion in states and districts running pro-Trump GOP candidates. 

Bottom line. We've been waiting for the public and national leaders to show some alarm about the trajectory of the fentanyl epidemic. Now we may be seeing it.

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.