Is the War on Drugs to Blame for the Fentanyl Crisis?

Plus: Mere discovery is overrated.

A man shows an eight ball, or 3.5 grams, of fentanyl
Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Question of the Week

What should be done about fentanyl? Has it affected your family or community?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com.


Conversations of Note

In The Washington Post, a series of articles on fentanyl includes a lot of stellar international reporting and the striking claim that the drug “is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49.”

But I am suspicious of the newspaper’s framing. Here is how one article began:

During the past seven years, as soaring quantities of fentanyl flooded into the United States, strategic blunders and cascading mistakes by successive U.S. administrations allowed the most lethal drug crisis in American history to become significantly worse, a Washington Post investigation has found.

Presidents from both parties failed to take effective action in the face of one of the most urgent threats to the nation’s security, one that claims more lives each year than car accidents, suicides or gun violence … The Drug Enforcement Administration, the country’s premier anti-narcotics agency, stumbled through a series of missteps as it confronted the biggest challenge in its 50-year history. The agency was slow to respond as Mexican cartels supplanted Chinese producers, creating a massive illicit pharmaceutical industry that is now producing more fentanyl than ever. The Department of Homeland Security, whose agencies are responsible for detecting illegal drugs at the nation’s borders, failed to ramp up scanning and inspection technology at official crossings, instead channeling $11 billion toward the construction of a border wall that does little to stop fentanyl traffickers.

Implicit here is the notion that waging the drug war more aggressively and more effectively could have stopped the surge of fentanyl into the country and the overdose deaths that followed. What if, instead, today’s surge in fentanyl deaths is a by-product of decades of aggressively waging the War on Drugs? Absent prohibition, it seems unlikely that many would choose a drug so powerful that even a tiny amount can kill you. But when drugs are illegal, a narcotic that can get you high even in tiny amounts is very useful, because it is easier to smuggle and to hide.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, “seizures of fentanyl sourced from China average less than one kilogram in weight, and often test above 90 percent concentration of pure fentanyl.” Ramping up scanning at the border is never going to stop enough fentanyl to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, in Tijuana “there have been 1,900 homicides here this year so far, making it the deadliest city in Mexico,” the Post reports. This is largely due to the drug cartels that prohibition enriches. “Tijuana has long been a major transit point for illicit goods into the United States: alcohol during Prohibition, waves of marijuana and cocaine after that. Now, it is a city of fentanyl. It is the most prolific trafficking hub into the United States for the drug and, increasingly, a city of users.” Why continue a drug-prohibition policy that fuels violence while failing to prevent deadly new synthetic drugs and massive surges of overdoses in multiple countries?

An Occasion to Celebrate

Megan McArdle knows that we’re still a long way off from getting abundant cheap energy from nuclear fusion. Still, she argues, a net energy gain from a fusion reaction is worth celebrating:

You are literally made of stardust. Most of the atoms in your body were forged in the core of some ancient sun, as lighter elements fused into heavier ones; you are the vicarious survivor of star fire and supernovas. Now your species is making stars — tiny ones to be sure, and very ephemeral, but nonetheless we are inching toward mastering the very process that made our world. This shift from product to producer would be wondrous even if it didn’t hold out hope for an energy revolution as profound as the shift from horsepower to fossil fuels. I won’t try to sketch out how much steady, reliable, indefinitely renewable clean energy could transform society. I couldn’t possibly predict, any more than the 18th-century scholars fiddling with Leyden jars could have foretold ice cream cakes and social media influencers. But the energy they ultimately unleashed — along with their fellow tinkerers on steam engines — made possible humanity’s greatest period of flourishing.

… We went from a world where the average person lived at subsistence level and half of children died before reaching adulthood to one where most children survive to their 15th birthdays and end up on average healthier, better fed, more lavishly entertained and more comfortable than a medieval king. Obviously, the journey from poverty to abundance was fueled by many technological breakthroughs, but all of it — from drug development to fiber-optic lines to water treatment plants — was possible only because a new source of power delivered many times what human or animal muscle could manage. As Andrew McAfee points out in his book “More From Less,” from 1800 to 1970, the United States’ gross domestic product and its energy consumption rose in near lockstep. They eventually decoupled, in part because the costs of burning hydrocarbons forced us to look for ways to economize. But what if we didn’t have to economize?

May we live to find out.

Mere Discovery Is Overrated

My colleague Derek Thompson points out that although Americans tend to celebrate inventors and innovators, their eureka moments don’t matter much when their advances are not implemented.

He writes:

The U.S. has more Nobel Prizes for science than the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, Canada, and Austria combined. But if there were a Nobel Prize for the deployment and widespread adoption of technology—even technology that we invented, even technology that’s not so new anymore—our legacy wouldn’t be so sterling. Americans invented the first nuclear reactor, the solar cell, and the microchip, but today, we’re well behind a variety of European and Asian countries in deploying and improving these technologies. We were home to some of the world’s first subway systems, but our average cost per mile for tunnel projects today is the highest in the world. The U.S. did more than any other nation to advance the production of the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, but also leads the developed world in vaccine refusal … Implementation, not mere invention, determines the pace of progress—a lesson the U.S. has failed to heed for the past several generations … The U.S. remains the world’s R&D factory, but when it comes to building, we are plainly going backwards.

How to Solve Homelessness

The obvious answer to homelessness is to build more housing, but year after year, a consensus around that strategy fails to emerge, even as housing scarcity causes lots of homelessness.

My colleague Jerusalem Demsas writes:

Why are there so many more homeless people in California than Texas? Why are rates of homelessness so much higher in New York than West Virginia? … Yes, examining who specifically becomes homeless can tell important stories of individual vulnerability created by disability or poverty, domestic violence or divorce. Yet when we have a dire shortage of affordable housing, it’s all but guaranteed that a certain number of people will become homeless. In musical chairs, enforced scarcity is self-evident. In real life, housing scarcity is more difficult to observe—but it’s the underlying cause of homelessness.

… A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue. Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups that have historically been shunted to the peripheries of the housing market. But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple. This contradiction drives the ever more visible crisis.

My colleague Annie Lowrey has similar views. She writes:

High rents and sale prices in major cities are a policy choice, one that puts gates around many of our most wonderful places and taxes the folks lucky enough to live there. And it is unfair to all of us. A United States with more abundant housing in its big cities would have a more productive, vibrant, and dynamic economy too.

And I agree, for reasons I explained in my 2021 feature on California:

The NIMBY impulse is not new. Carey McWilliams observed in 1949 that although Californians were fascinated by their state’s phenomenal growth, they were simultaneously “disturbed and even repelled” by it. “They want the state to grow, and yet they don’t want it to grow,” he explained. “They like the idea of growth and expansion, but withdraw from the practical implications.” But when he wrote those words, amid a severe housing shortage, policy makers in both parties still encouraged countless small developers to build houses and apartments as rapidly as possible.

Today matters are much worse. The most powerful factions of residents do not want their state to grow and do not accept the fact that it surely will. For 40 years, they haven’t just failed to adequately plan for the housing needs of California’s current population; upper-income residents in San Diego and the Bay Area as surely as those in Los Angeles have deliberately fought to restrict the supply of housing. Even now, when housing costs are the primary reason that a majority of registered voters say they’ve considered moving, and when politicians in both parties pay lip service to the problem, there is insufficient political will to attempt a plausible solution. And the forces paralyzing the state are all the more entrenched because some of them believe themselves to be protecting the California Dream.

I feel the pull of their backward-looking vision. Years ago, I spent two glorious seasons in the Sea Ranch, a 10-mile stretch on the rugged coast of Sonoma County where beaches strewn with mussels rise to majestic bluffs; then to meadows where deer frolic and sleep; and, just beyond, hills of redwood forest that thrive in the fogs that roll in many evenings. If 50 million people could sustainably inhabit a state where all coastal development resembled the Sea Ranch, I’d sign up. In that fantasy, San Franciscans would all live in detached Victorians and Angelenos would all reside in prewar bungalows. Central Valley farmers could use all the water they wanted on their crops without affecting commercial fishermen, who could catch all of the fish they wanted forever. There would be no lines at Disneyland.

Those expectations, fantastical as they sound today, seemed plausible within living memory. The Inexhaustible Sea was published in 1954. Around 1970, the Sea Ranch was considered a model of sustainable development. On rainy winter days in my 1980s youth, there actually were no lines at Disneyland. I once went on Space Mountain 18 times in a row, finding no one in line each time the roller coaster ended. Imagine if, in middle age, I felt entitled to pass laws so I could keep doing that into my 70s and 80s, no matter how many kids never got a turn. That is the anti-growth Californian, mistaking nostalgia for justice.

On The White Lotus Season Finale (With Spoilers)

If you’ll indulge a speculative take about the prestige TV show that secular cosmopolitan media elites are all watching at the moment: According to conventional wisdom, Tanya, the ultra-wealthy heiress, was betrayed by her husband, Greg, who planned to steal her fortune—prenup be damned—by conspiring with a group of “high-class gays” to murder her.

But is that what happened? I am among those who suspect thatTanya’s prenuptial agreement was void in the event that she was unfaithful, not in the event that she was murdered. The “high-class gays” threw their fabulous party at a Palermo villa not to murder her, but to orchestrate her infidelity. If their intention was for a Mafia-affiliated local to kill her, why take her to Palermo at all? Why take her to the opera? Why ply her with cocaine? Why have a handsome younger man seduce her? Why refrain from murdering her on the open sea, an easy place to kill, and take her back to within swimming distance of Taormina?

The murder theory makes no sense. I know what some of you are thinking. “How do you explain the duffel bag she found with a gun, duct tape, and a rope?” To which I say: If you’re a Mafia dude intent on murdering a 60-something woman on a yacht, do you need a rope or duct tape if you already have a gun? Of course not. At most, they were going to kidnap Tanya so that Greg could pay her ransom, giving the high-class gays their cut. Regardless, the main thing was for Tanya to have sex with the Mafia dude. Once that happened, her prenup was void and Greg stood to make a fortune. What’s more plausible, a prenup clause where the new husband you don’t quite trust gets everything if you cheat … or one where he gets everything if you get murdered?


Provocation of the Week

In The Free Press, Rupa Subramanya critiques one of the internet era’s most important financial companies:

The people who founded PayPal—the so-called PayPal Mafia—include Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, David Sacks and Max Levchin. All are champions of free speech. All have expressed shock and dismay at what is happening to the company they created. Several founders agreed to talk with The Free Press for this article.

“If the online forms of your money are frozen, that’s like destroying people economically, limiting their ability to exercise their political voice,” Thiel told me. “There’s something about destroying people economically that seems like a far more totalitarian thing.”

When they launched PayPal, in December 1998, the founders imagined themselves connecting people to the global economy by sidestepping the hefty fees charged by credit-card companies and the inflationary policies of poorly run governments. Early PayPal users had Palm Pilots, and they would beam money from their devices to anyone with an email address. It was especially popular among eBay users.

“PayPal will give citizens worldwide more direct control over their currencies than they ever had before,” Thiel said at a company meeting, in late 1999. “It will be nearly impossible for corrupt governments to steal wealth from their people through their old means, because if they try the people will switch to dollars or pounds or yen, in effect, dumping the worthless local currency for something more secure.”

Since those early heady days, PayPal has amassed 429 million active accounts. Fifty-eight percent of Americans use PayPal, and in 2021, there were 19.3 billion PayPal transactions. It now has a market valuation of $84 billion.

But the company that was meant to liberate countless individuals is becoming something else. Increasingly, it is becoming a police officer. It is deciding what is right and wrong, who gets to be heard, who is silenced. It is locking out of the financial system those people or brands that have slipped outside the parameters of acceptable discourse, those who threaten the consensus of the gatekeepers. The consensus is hard to articulate; it is an ideology lacking clearly defined ideological contours. But the tenets of that consensus are unmistakable: the new progressive politics around race and gender are a force for good, the Covid lockdown was just, the war in Ukraine is noble, and an unfettered exchange of ideas and opinions is an unacceptable threat to all of the above.

The English professor and writer Alan Jacobs adds, “We tend to think of social-credit systems as the province of governments, but the big American tech companies are right now imposing their own such system — and in some ways are better placed to do it than our government would be.”

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.