Fentanyl is a painkiller legally administered in emergency rooms every day. “Fentanyl” is also a catchall term for synthetic opioids fueling panic and misinformation about the overdose crisis — and a central theme of the GOP’s fear-mongering midterm election strategy.
In a recent appeal to voters that was panned by critics as “substance-free” in terms of concrete policy ideas, House Republicans decried an “out of control border” and claimed every state is now a “border state” under assault by fentanyl. Ahead of an expected reelection bid, former President Donald Trump is once again railing about an “invasion” of “drug dealers” claiming “innocent victims,” a redux of the racist messaging on immigration that defined his first campaign.
Never mind that drug overdose deaths actually began rising under the Trump administration’s policies before shattering records once COVID hit, or that medical experts and nonpartisan fact-checkers routinely debunk GOP narratives portraying an increase in fentanyl seizures by law enforcement as evidence of an “open border.”
By wrongly conflating asylum seekers and President Joe Biden’s border policies with overdose deaths, Republicans hope to continue hammering Democrats as “soft” on “crime” and immigration (if only!) while whipping up fear among voters and anger in their nativist base. The GOP’s major attack lines ahead of the midterms are “open borders,” “fentanyl” and “invasion,” and they are grounding those attacks in lies and disinformation, according to a national analysis of digital ads and campaigns published by America’s Voice, an immigration reform group.
The GOP’s rhetoric fits neatly into the grooves of the so-called “Great Replacement,” a deeply racist and antisemitic conspiracy theory about liberal elites aiming to replace white, Christian Americans with people of color, Jews, Muslims and non-European immigrants. According to this distorted logic, which is trumpeted by right-wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson on Fox News, President Joe Biden and the Democrats are allowing drugs produced in China and Mexico to cross the border and kill Americans while they are “replaced” by a non-white electorate.
In reality, most migrants attempting to cross border are seeking asylum after fleeing violence and poverty, and certainly aren’t smuggling fentanyl in their backpacks. Plenty of statements and data from federal law enforcement show that fentanyl most commonly enters the U.S. in trucks and passenger vehicles at legal ports of entry, and a majority of those transporting fentanyl are U.S. citizens, who are less likely to draw the attention of border police. By scapegoating migrants as a source of drugs, demagogues obscure the facts with a cloud of xenophobia.
Thousands of travelers, workers and truck drivers cross the U.S.-Mexico border through legal ports of entry each day, and federal border authorities are reportedly undertaking a $480 million effort to update scanner equipment to identify vehicles carrying fentanyl and other drugs. On top of billions of dollars spent annually to enforce drugs laws, the Biden administration announced an additional $275 million in anti-drug trafficking funding in April. Facing baseless attacks from the right, Biden has also issued a dangerous call for an additional 100,000 local cops on the streets.
If Republicans had proposals beyond building Trump’s border wall and further restricting immigration — which would not stop fentanyl at legal ports of entry — they would probably look a lot like Biden’s: more policing. Stopping drugs at the border is bedrock U.S. policy, but if saving lives is any metric, this decades-old drug war approach is clearly failing. The sharp increase in fentanyl seizures under both Trump and Biden has not prevented a record number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. (It’s worth noting that fentanyl is far from the only drug behind the crisis; fatal overdoses involving stimulants are also on the rise, and overdoses often involve alcohol or a combination of drugs.)
Experts warn there is no way to stop all drugs crossing the border, where traffickers and police have played a lucrative “cat and mouse game” for decades. Law enforcement efforts to disrupt the traditional heroin supply and crack down on painkiller prescribing increased demand for fentanyl, which is easier to smuggle in smaller packages due to its potency. Unlike prescription painkillers with known dosages, counterfeit pills and other products containing fentanyl can vary in strength, putting users at increased risk of overdose.
The U.S. has averaged more than 100,000 overdose deaths in a 12-month period for over a year now, according to preliminary estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In July, the CDC confirmed massive racial disparities in the data from 2019 and 2020, when rates of fatal drug overdose skyrocketed by about 30 percent as COVID-19 roiled Trump’s final year in office. The CDC’s report does not mention the southern border. Instead, the CDC cites unequal access to health care and addiction treatment fueled by stigma and bias against drug users, especially if they are poor, Black or Brown.
Such inequalities were entrenched when the pandemic isolated drug users from friends, family and health supports, and the estimated number of annual overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 for the first time. The CDC’s findings echo years of research showing that poverty, incarceration, racist policing and the criminalization of drug users are all major factors behind the overdose crisis, but the response from policy makers and health care providers has been anything but equal.
For example, Black patients are far less likely than white people to access the most effective treatments for opioid addiction, one reason why rates of fatal overdoses among Black men were seven times higher compared to white men, according to the CDC. Among all Black and Hispanic people, overdose death rates grew fastest in local counties with the most income inequality — including in areas where addiction treatment has expanded. The findings echo a 2020 National Institutes of Health study showing that Black people and other people of color are not benefiting equally from investments in health care and addiction treatment meant to quell the overdose crisis.
In a call with reporters in late July, CDC officials called for increasing access to addiction treatments and harm reduction services such as syringe exchange programs that are medically proven to prevent overdose deaths and the spread of disease. Don’t expect to hear about this from Republicans, who have demonized lifesaving harm reduction services to score political points for years. Most recently, Republicans attacked the Biden administration’s extremely modest efforts to reduce overdose deaths by funding harm reduction services with memes falsely accusing the president of handing out “free crack pipes.”
The overdose crisis is a difficult and emotional issue for millions of people, and viral drug panics are perfect fodder for demagogues. The GOP’s timing for putting “fentanyl” and “invasion” at the center of a midterm strategy appears intentional. Look no further than the viral misinformation about so-called “rainbow fentanyl,” which showed up in law enforcement press releases just in time for the annual panic about drugs in Halloween candy, a misinformed media tradition dating back to the height of the drug war in the 1980s.
As Kastalia Medrano writes at Filter, drug sellers are adding colors such as blue (aka “blues”) to the fentanyl pills that have replaced prescription painkillers and traditional heroin in many illicit markets, but not in order to lure “young Americans” as law enforcement claims. (Police are a persistent source of misinformation about fentanyl in the media.) If anything, Medrano writes, the added colors will help keep people safe:
People who don’t use drugs really hate this idea, but drug sellers have done more to keep people safe during the drug war than pretty much anyone else. The emergence of different colors of pressed pills alongside the blues won’t lure in younger buyers. If anything, it’ll help keep new buyers safe.
“For pain patients being cut off from access to pain medications because of deprescribing initiatives, they’re increasingly turning to street pills,” Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a harm reduction-based researcher at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Filter. “Fake pills that are clearly fake are helpful for them to know that what they’re getting is not the OxyCodone they’re used to, but something more potent.”
Attempting to stop opioids and other drugs that people depend on at the border will not bring down overdose deaths. Instead, we must look to other strategies for saving lives during a deadly drug war and public health crisis. These strategies often appear among drug users and sellers themselves. For example, harm reduction providers circulate fentanyl test strips so people involved with drugs they can identify pills and powders containing fentanyl and avoid accidental overdoses.
Trump, on the other hand, is once again calling for “drug dealers” to face the death penalty, even after pardoning people convicted of drug trafficking while in office. Like other Republicans — and even some Democrats — Trump hopes voters arrive at the ballot box with fear, not facts.