The politics of the fight against fentanyl – and fear

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) would like to be elected to the Senate in his increasingly red-hot home state. This means that Ryan has always tried to take positions that (he hopes) lie somewhere between those of his opponent, venture capitalist and author JD Vance, and the mainstream of his party.

Thus, during a debate with Vance on Monday evening, Ryan criticized President Biden and Vice President Harris, particularly on the subject of immigration. He said, for example, that the border was unsecured, contradicting Harris.

But as it’s October 2022, that conversation about the border has become intertwined with another about fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that accounts for a disproportionate percentage of drug overdose deaths in the United States, especially in Midwestern states. , including Ohio.

“Tim Ryan did nothing to stop the flow of fentanyl,” Vance said during the debate. “He talks about wanting to support a stronger border. … Tim, you’ve been in Congress for 20 years and the border issue has gotten worse.

“We still have work to do,” Ryan replied, “that’s why I have a resolution to designate fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, that’s why I’m voting for more border patrols, why I’m voting for a barrier, why I vote for technology.

This exchange is revealing. Fentanyl is primarily imported and often transported into the United States across the border from Mexico, mostly smuggled through existing ports of entry. This means that criticism of the Biden administration’s border policies can be elevated to a life-or-death concern — and result in commensurately elevated proposals as solutions.

But if we extract the debate from the political moment (and the looming midterm elections), the situation and the context change.

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One of the odd aspects of how fentanyl has been covered over the past year is how the immediate danger it presents appears to be situational. In August 2021, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released a video purporting to show an officer passing out after coming into indirect contact with fentanyl. It was a warning, offered to colleagues about the danger of drugs.

It was also quickly debunked. There is no solid evidence that someone who is rubbing up on fentanyl can suddenly overdose on it. It’s just as unlikely for this officer as it is for the woman who claimed to have picked up a fentanyl-covered dollar bill from a McDonald’s and then collapsed.

That latest story, however, ended up on Fox News in July, thanks to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). His argument was that fentanyl was terribly deadly…and, therefore, that the administration’s border policies were themselves deadly.

And yet, at the same time, Republicans are amplifying the idea that fentanyl pushers are trying to get kids hooked on fentanyl by circulating rainbow versions of the substance. These children, oblivious to the immediate physical threat facing law enforcement, are given drugs that… look like candy… so, I guess, become addicted? And start paying for it? But no overdose?

It doesn’t really make sense, but the United States has long worried about nefarious things that could be slipped into children’s Halloween bags. And here is Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel magnifying the alleged danger.

“As Halloween approaches, mothers like me are terrified,” she wrote for – “thanks to reckless open-border policies that create the perfect conditions for ruthless drug cartels, our children are now on the front lines of a drug crisis.”

Look at this? Your children are in danger because of the border – again, ignoring that the conduit for bringing fentanyl into the country is to smuggle it through checkpoints, and ignoring that the idea that traffickers of drugs will distribute fentanyl to children makes no sense.

The war on fentanyl provides an elegant vehicle for elected officials to demonstrate their tenacity. The war on terror is over; the war on drugs is back. So we have former President Donald Trump’s allies announcing that they would like to draw a “clear and present danger” on Mexico, declaring a literal war against drug cartels in Mexico. We get Ryan’s analogy to weapons of mass destruction, which 20 years ago meant nuclear weapons.

None of this is intended to reduce overdose deaths caused by fentanyl. The most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that just over 69,000 people died from synthetic opioid overdoses (excluding methadone) in the 12 months to April. That’s more than 1,300 people a week, on average. It’s also down a bit from the 12-month period ending in January.

There is another danger to which this can be compared: the coronavirus. In the same 12-month period in which almost 70,000 people died from synthetic opioids, more than 417,000 died from covid-19 – 8,000 per week. The number of deaths from covid-19 is falling, thankfully; over the past three months, the country has recorded far fewer deaths on average. But it is still more than 3,400 deaths per week, on average.

There are obvious differences between an infectious disease and an addictive drug. Each involves different decisions, different levels of personal responsibility, different external pressures and triggers. But each, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past two years, includes elements of these things. How we view the politics of covid-19 or fentanyl is often tied to how we portray the level of victimization of those who have succumbed.

It’s worth noting an additional measure of how the policy overlaps here. In general, the three major cable news networks covered much more covid-19 than fentanyl. There are, however, two major differences. Fox News, where McCarthy and McDaniel have spoken out about the dangers of fentanyl, was about as likely to mention the coronavirus on-air at the start of the pandemic, but less likely to do so for the rest of 2020 – while Trump was seeking re-election in part by putting the pandemic behind him.

Then, starting in 2021, Fox News started mentioning fentanyl far more than its competitors, and now, after ramping up its coverage over the past few months, the network mentions it about as much as the virus — even though the virus continues to claim nearly three times as many lives.

We’ve seen Fox News’ coverage of controversial issues brewing ahead of the latest midterms, of course: Ebola ahead of the 2014 midterms; migrant “caravans” before 2018. In each case, coverage evaporated once the elections were over.

For contestants like Ryan, however, fentanyl isn’t something he can ignore. It’s a real danger in Ohio, unlike Ebola or those so-called caravans, and has been for some time. His opponents have managed to center the drug debate on immigration policies. So he reacts: fentanyl is WMD, something he proposed legislatively in June.

Shortly after the November general election match was set up.


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