America and China are locked in a trade dispute, but a branching dialogue regarding fentanyl continues to hold the focus of Ohio’s senators.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) hosted a news conference call Wednesday, after pushing legislators for congressional action on the Fentanyl Sanctions Act, which was co-authored by Brown and is supported by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) as well.

According to a news release, the bipartisan legislation would give U.S. officials new sanctions tools to target foreign opioid traffickers in China, Mexico and other countries, and better enable U.S. diplomats and law enforcement officials to maintain pressure on the Chinese government to implement and strictly enforce its commitment to treat all “illicit” forms of fentanyl as illegal.

Brown’s promotion of the legislation follows China’s commitment to the U.S. at the G-20 in December 2018 and an April 2019 announcement that a wider range of fentanyl analogues would be declared controlled substances in China beginning in May 2019.

“Families can’t afford to wait ... to see if China enforces its laws,” Brown said on Wednesday.

Local and state situation

According to Multi-Area Narcotics Task Force Commander Max Nofziger, the fentanyl present in northwest Ohio’s six counties since 2015 largely comes from China, Mexico and Canada, much of it through Mexican cartel operations, two of which operate in northwest Ohio.

So far this year, there have been 50 overdoses, 20 fatal, reported to his organization in the MAN Unit’s coverage area (Williams, Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Paulding and Putnam counties), with an estimated 50 percent of those said to have involved fentanyl or carfentanyl. The total number is on track to outpace 2018’s 91 total overdoses, with 66 fatalities. Those numbers are typically significantly underreported to the MAN Unit by local agencies and individuals, he said.

“I totally support that bill and totally agree with Sen. Brown on that, as far as, we have to have these sanctions that are broad because of the severity of this issue with our population,” said Nofziger. “If we can keep the ingredients away, it’s only going to be better.”

Nofziger said the area is seeing more situations recently that he believes will lead to a spike in deaths in the future.

“We are seeing all drugs laced with fentanyl, meaning everything, marijuana, and if we don’t do something soon or in the very near future the drug of choice will be fentanyl,” said Nofziger. “If we don’t have something in place by 2025, fentanyl overdose deaths will outweigh cancer in the U.S.”

Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus, chair of that county’s Heroin Coalition, joined Brown Wednesday on his conference call with reporters, indicating that her county has seen a spike in fentanyl-related overdoses in the African American community, which officials there believe to be an indication its presence has spread to other drugs as well.

Seventeen people have died from fentanyl-related overdoses in Hamilton County over the past two weeks, she said. According to Brown’s office, 14 Ohioans die everyday from opioid overdoes.

Nofziger said the measures against those complicit in the fentanyl trade must continue to be paired with efforts across the board — securing the post office level and improving detection equipment, further funding law enforcement agencies, funding education and treatment — to be effective.

Both Brown and Portman have been involved in bolstering several of those areas over the past two years.

“No one thing will stand alone, it needs to be a combination,” said Nofziger.

For its part, the MAN Unit has taken 220,000 lethal doses of fentanyl off the streets in the past four years, according to Nofziger, in its six-county area, where the total population is around 201,705.

Nofziger reiterated his appreciation for the top-down support from legislators.

“All these years we’ve been working on the inside and going out. This is a new way of looking at things,” he said. “It’s nice to see that the big brothers, so to speak, are focusing on the outside and working their way in.”

Bill’s specifics

Specifically, the Fentanyl Sanctions Act would require imposition of sanctions on foreign drug traffickers, drug manufacturers in China who knowingly provide illicit synthetic opioids to traffickers, individuals or firms operating alone or as part of transnational criminal organizations and foreign financial institutions and others that knowingly assist such trafficking.

It would also authorize new funding to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including the Departments of Treasury, Defense and State, to combat the foreign trafficking of opioids.

Additionally, it would urge the president to commence diplomatic efforts with U.S. partners to establish multilateral sanctions and to deploy other multilateral measures against foreign opioid traffickers; and establish a National Commission on Synthetic Opioid Trafficking to monitor U.S. efforts and report on how to more effectively combat the flow of illicit synthetic opioids from foreign countries.

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