He’s the nation’s first drug czar.  And on Monday he said the debate over the opioid overdose epidemic is focused on the wrong thing.

William Bennett said the government’s opioid crackdown has focused on prescription drugs, taking aim at reducing the supply of legal opioids and reducing painkiller prescription rates.

In the meantime, the real problem is black market opioids like illicit fentanyl and heroin that have actually been the driving force of the epidemic, he says.

Bennett served as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

He says that “It’s now fentanyl, it’s now heroin” that account for most of the overdoses.

Why is that? According to Bennett, it’s because fentanyl and heroin are cheaper than prescription drugs.

“When I was up in New Hampshire, they told me you [can pay] $10 for a pill –to get an Oxycontin, [but] two bucks to get heroin, three bucks to get fentanyl.”

Supply and demand, he points out, means that the black market is thriving on drugs other than prescription pills.

“And that’s the nature of the problem,” Bennett said. “You talk to law enforcement people that will tell you they haven’t seen a lot of the other stuff – OxyContin — on the street but they’re loaded with these cases of fentanyl.”

Last week, a report was released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  It said that some 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017.

Let’s look at that breakdown. 

  • Nearly 48,000 involved at least one type of opioid.
  • Roughly 30,000 involved fentanyl or some other kind of synthetic opioid.
  • 15,500 involved heroin.
  • 14,500 involved prescription opioid painkillers.

Other government data shows that many people who overdosed on prescription opioids didn’t have a prescription for them – they stole them or obtained them from the person to whom they were prescribed.

Greg Giuntini is the Director of Market Development for DetectaChem.  He works with police departments and government agencies across the country, and says they are seeing a huge uptick in fentanyl and heroin overdoses.

“While Congress is battling over a wall, we’re seeing a very real threat here in America that we can – and are – doing something about. It’s this illicit drug crisis.  It’s a threat not only to every day Americans, but also to our law enforcement officers.”

Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.  That means that just 2 milligrams is considered to be a deadly dose, that’s all it takes if inhaled through the nose or mouth and is absorbed by mucous membranes.

The DetectaChem MobileDetectproduct has already been integrated into much of the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Homeland Security and many police departments across the country because of its next-generation technology and low cost.

“There are several products on the market that cost north of $50,000 and were evaluated as less effective than our test kits working with the MobileDetect app,” said Giuntini.  “At $3.50 for each Multi Drug Fentanyl Test kit and our free app, all levels of law enforcement officers can cost-effectively detect fentanyl.”

In the meantime, Bennett says there are steps being taken in the right direction to help take drugs off the streets.

Just last week, for example, came a conviction in the latest of a series of actions against pharmaceutical companies.

The founder of a highly addictive legal fentanyl spray was convicted on charges related to paying doctors millions in bribes to hand out prescription drug.

That man was 76-year-old John Kapoor, the former chairman of Insys Therapeutics.  He was found guilty of racketeering conspiracy after 15 days of jury deliberations. Also convicted were four ex-employees of the Chandler, Arizona-based company.

“They should be investigated and convicted if they committed a crime,” Bennett said, adding, “What I am concerned about is the emphasis [is] so much on these pharma companies – on OxyContin and Oxycodone—yes, they can be dangerous, yes, people have gotten addicted.”

He says that federal crackdown on legal opioids has led to problems for chronic pain patients. Prescribers are forcibly tapering down or dropping prescriptions for those patients who, in many cases, have responsibly taken painkillers for years in order to function.

As a result of a 2016 CDC guideline on opioid prescribing, many states have implemented strict regulations. But the CDC says the guideline was simply supposed to be to help primary care physicians prescribing opioids to a first-time user… not meant to be a guideline that was enforced.

“Most people, the vast majority of the people, who are prescribed these [painkillers] do not abuse them,” Bennett said. “The CDC had to come back and issue another kind of guidance, saying a lot of people who need pain pills are not getting them.”

Last month, both the FDA and the CDC warned doctors not to suddenly stop prescribing opioid painkillers to patients who are taking them for chronic debilitating pain, something generally lasting more than three months.