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Romney asks: What can Congress do to stop the ‘scourge’ of fentanyl?

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Mar 21, 2024

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks April 20, 2023, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Is there a single lever Congress can pull to stifle the fentanyl-fueled opioid crisis in the U.S.?

That was the theme of Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s line of questioning on Wednesday during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee meeting.

The short answer is no, according to witnesses called to testify.

Romney, the ranking member of the subcommittee, pointed to a 128% increase in fentanyl-related deaths in Utah between 2019 and 2020. Nationally, overdose rates have climbed steadily, with fentanyl’s dangerous potency a big contributor to the nearly 112,000 overdose-related deaths in 2023.

“The question is what can we do? Is there any one place, any choke point we can focus on?” he asked.

The Utah Republican laid out a number of areas the U.S. can apply pressure or has “capacity to constrain.” No solution comes easy, and Romney didn’t sound overly optimistic.

Trying to reduce demand in the U.S. for synthetic opioids would be “a very difficult task,” he said. The same goes for policies combating smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border — even the most “aggressive” attempts to stop the flow of fentanyl are still “very difficult” because of the multitude of routes and tactics.

The U.S. government could try to target drug cartels in Mexico, but Romney acknowledged “ending organized crime is something we’ve been trying to do since the 1930s.” Targeting China, where much of the raw materials to make fentanyl come from, is an option, but Romney acknowledged compelling the Chinese government to enact policies is a heavy lift.

“China has made commitments,” he said. “And I don’t believe they fully lived up to those commitments.”

He extended that same sentiment about the Mexican government, telling the committee “we have not had as much support and fighting organized crime and the cartels in Mexico as we might have hoped.”

Lastly, Romney pointed to the money laundering and illegal transactions that revolve around the sale of raw materials to criminal groups in Mexico. Again, he conceded that “ultimately, buyers and sellers are going to be able to complete a transaction.”

“We’re all recognizing what the problem is. We just don’t know how to solve it,” Romney said.

One of the witnesses was Celine Realuyo, a professor of practice at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at National Defense University, who emphasized tackling the demand in the U.S. as an important step.

“Every one of us, as members of our community, need to impress upon our youth how deadly these things are that you’re ordering online,” she said. “We as parents, and educators, are not watching what our kids are doing online.”

Realuyo, a former U.S. State Department official, also highlighted the importance of stopping the money laundering and cash flow between criminal groups — often groups in China selling raw materials to groups in Mexico. The federal government should use the same “toolkit” used to pursue and stop the financing of Islamic terror groups.

“There’s an area where we can impart on our foreign counterparts methods and means of imposing more controls” on money laundering tactics, like cryptocurrency,” she said.

Christopher Urban, managing director of the global investigations firm Nardello and Company and a former Drug Enforcement Administration official, said the U.S. should increase cooperation with other countries in Asia, like Vietnam, Laos or Thailand, which don’t necessarily have a fentanyl problem, but are impacted by Chinese criminal groups.

“All those countries, we can increase resources in terms of our collaboration with law enforcement and it would benefit us in terms of attacking Chinese organized crime,” he said.

And at home, Urban said the Department of Justice should aggressively pursue money laundering by using racketeering laws.

“Diminishing the ability of the use of WeChat would be a dramatic improvement,” he added.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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