A Mysterious Death

Earlier this month a young man I knew died under mysterious circumstances. A family member found him unresponsive in his bedroom one morning and called 911. Investigating officers suspected a drug overdose.

The young man’s family was overcome by grief and shock. He was not a known drug abuser. At 29 years of age, he seemed to have everything to live for and to look forward to. His lunch was packed for work that day. An invitation to him to attend a wedding in the near future was on the refrigerator.

He had a college degree in biology and worked in a laboratory in St. Louis. His coworkers who attended his funeral said he was solid and reliable. A close friend said illegal drug use did not fit in with the character of the young man he knew. Moreover, the young man had recently completed all the testing and pre-screening necessary to join the U.S. Air Force. His induction was scheduled a few weeks hence.

His family was left heartbroken over the loss of a promising young life, and confused about what was behind it. Some wondered if he had died accidentally while experimenting with a powerfully lethal drug.

The county coroner’s report, when it is delivered, may provide answers. This week, the independent press offered a possible clue. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that synthetic fentanyl, a highly potent painkiller, is now involved in nearly all the drug overdose deaths in the St. Louis area. “Fentanyl has taken over as the drug that is killing people here,” said Stephen Nonn, the coroner in Madison County, Illinois. According to the news story, the St. Louis area is well above the national average with up to 95 percent of overdose deaths coming from fentanyl.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were an estimated 72,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2017, with the sharpest increase associated with the use of fentanyl.

The Post-Dispatch news story said illegal fentanyl gets to the United States from labs in Mexico and China. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, it is shipped into the country through the mail. Could this be true? Is the U.S. Postal Service a conduit for lethal drugs coming into the country?

It turns out, it is. In September, a report found that efforts taken at mail facilities by the Department of Homeland Security to stop fentanyl are “inadequate to prevent illegal drugs and contraband from entering the United States.”

This issue has been on the radar screen of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri. McCaskill has heard from families across the state who’ve lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic. Earlier this year, Sen. McCaskill issued a report that highlighted the increase in the amount of fentanyl seized at U.S. ports of entry. A few days later, McCaskill’s office issued a follow-up that showed fentanyl seizures had increased at the U.S. border.

On Oct. 10, there was a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that focused on national security threats. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was there.

“We have not focused enough on adequately resourcing the ports of entry as it relates to these illegal drugs coming into our country,” McCaskill told Nielsen. “There’s been very little attention directed to this real vital need that we have. We are dying from this fentanyl, in record numbers, all across my state. I talk to families every week, Madam Secretary, who have lost a child to illegal fentanyl. And the sad thing about this is we could do this. We know how to interdict…we just have not put enough boots on the ground around this problem.”

Sen. McCaskill backed legislation and sponsored bills to toughen enforcement against illegal drug trafficking. Among them, she offered a measure that would increase the number of officers screening for contraband at ports of entry.

It’s ironic that we have a president who wants to build a border wall to block illegal migrants from coming into the country while at the same time his Department of Homeland Security allows a porous postal service to import lethal drugs from foreign countries.

I don’t know if fentanyl took the life of the young man I knew. We’ll have to await a coroner’s report. I do know someone else in the U.S. Senate will have to take up the cause of fighting fentanyl importation since Sen. McCaskill lost her bid for a third term in the Nov. 6 election.

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