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Fact-checking how much fentanyl is coming into the U.S.
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• In July and August 2022, federal agents seized 4,500 pounds of fentanyl, the vast majority along the southwestern border, compared with 2,800 pounds seized in all of 2019.
• It’s unclear whether the 2022 change is attributable to President Joe Biden’s policies. It’s also unclear whether the recent spike in fentanyl seizures reflects an increased inflow or improved interdiction by law enforcement.
Public officials have expressed growing concern about the flow of fentanyl into the United States, as the synthetic opioid has been blamed for a growing number of deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 56,000 people died in 2020 from overdoses involving synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, and preliminary figures show an uptick in synthetic opioid-related deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fentanyl is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.
The West Virginia Republican Party recently took to Twitter to criticize President Joe Biden for the continuing flow of fentanyl into the country.
"Illicit drugs are flowing into the country at an alarming rate," the Aug. 23 tweet said. "Overdoses reached an all-time high in 2021. 2,071 lbs of fentanyl — more than 469 million lethal doses seized in July. More fentanyl has crossed the border in the last two months under Biden than in 2019 under Trump."
We took a closer look at this part of the claim: "More fentanyl has crossed the border in the last two months under Biden than in 2019 under Trump."
The claim is numerically accurate, but needs additional context.
Data from Customs and Border Protection shows that federal agents seized 4,500 pounds of fentanyl in July and August 2022 at U.S. borders and coasts. This was more than the 2,800 pounds seized all of 2019. Virtually all of it was seized along the southwestern border, the vast majority of which was taken at ports of entry, from people trying to come into the U.S. legally via authorized checkpoints.
Although the two-month figure for July and August is more than all of 2019, it is not more than the figure for 2020 (when 4,791 pounds of fentanyl were seized) or 2021 (when 11,201 pounds were seized). So, the talking point is somewhat cherry-picked.
As a whole, the amount of drugs seized by CBP has declined over the past two years, but the rise in fentanyl seizures is seen as particularly important, since it is potent and can be deadly even in small doses. By weight, marijuana usually accounts for the majority of drug seizures by border officials.
John Findlay, the West Virginia Republican Party’s executive director, said the focus on fentanyl is appropriate because it is unusually deadly. Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed.
However, experts say it is an oversimplification to solely blame Biden and his administration.
It’s impossible to know whether the rise in fentanyl seizures is because of more smuggling attempts or better targeting and interdiction by law enforcement.
Caulkins said it’s often assumed that law enforcement always intercepts a constant percentage of what is smuggled across the border — which would mean that the amount being smuggled has increased along with seizures — but in reality, no one knows whether that is true.
It’s also too soon to determine whether fentanyl seizures have hit a new, long-lasting, higher level or whether the two-month spike is an aberration. Caulkins said he knew of no specific reason for the two-month increase, beyond the general upward trend in recent years.
Finally, Caulkins said, although White House policies can affect the transborder drug flow, other factors play a role, too. The flow can be influenced by factors on both the supply side, such as changes in the behavior of criminal cartels and international law enforcement, and on the demand side, such as an increase or decrease in users in the United States.
"That's a perennial discussion, but it should be informed by much more than just some simple seizure stats," he said.
The West Virginia Republican Party tweeted, "More fentanyl has crossed the border in the last two months under Biden than in 2019 under Trump."
We don’t know how much fentanyl has crossed the border undetected, but we do know how much has been seized. Federal agents seized 4,500 pounds of fentanyl in July and August 2022, mostly at the southwestern border, which was more than the 2,800 pounds seized all of 2019.
But whether the 2022 change is attributable to Biden’s policies is unclear. Also unclear is whether the recent spike in seizures reflects a larger inflow or improved interdiction by law enforcement.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
West Virginia Republican Party, tweet, Aug. 23, 2022
Customs and Border Protection, "Drug Seizure Statistics," accessed Oct. 2, 2022
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Fentanyl," accessed Oct. 2, 2022
Interview with John B. Mennell, Customs and Border Protection, Sept. 20, 2022
Email interview with Jonathan Caulkins, drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, Sept. 14, 2022
Email interview with John Findlay, executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party, Sept. 14, 2022
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