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Sen. Casey pushes bill to crack down on illicit fentanyl from China and Mexico

A man stands behind a podium with another man next to him.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Christopher Kearns, the superintendent of Allegheny County Police, supports a bill cosponsored by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey that would target fentanyl producers in Mexico and China. Casey holds a gift given to him by a woman whose daughter died of an overdose last year.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey is co-sponsoring a bill in the U.S. Senate that would give the federal government more authority to impose financial sanctions against individuals and companies in China and Mexico who participate in the illicit trade of fentanyl.

But some advocates who try to prevent overdose deaths, say the new law may have the unintended effect of giving rise to new, even deadlier drugs to take the place of fentanyl.

More than 5,200 Pennsylvanians and more than 700 Allegheny County residents died last year of fatal overdoses, the majority of which were due to fentanyl, Casey said at a press conference at the Allegheny County police headquarters in Greentree on Friday. More than 109,000 people died across the country in 2022, the most deaths in a single year.

“And that tragedy that's borne by a family begins with those chemical precursors, produced by chemical companies in China which ships that substance to Mexico,” Casey said.

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The proposed law, The FEND Off Fentanyl Act, would declare international trafficking in fentanyl a national emergency and empower the President of the United States to sanction people involved in trafficking and use the funds seized to fight the spread of fentanyl. The measure would also empower the U.S. Treasury to try to address suspicious activities and address money laundering.

Janet Morrison-Heberling lost her 30-year-old daughter, Brianna Sanner, last year to a fatal overdose and said she supports Casey’s efforts.

Brianna was so much more than her drug addiction,” Morrison-Heberling said at Friday’s press conference. “She herself was a mother as well as an aunt, a granddaughter, a cousin and a friend to so many. And losing Brianna so senselessly is what has driven me to speak out about that now.”

Federal efforts like Casey’s proposed law will help out police agencies in Allegheny County, according to Christopher Kearns, the superintendent of the Allegheny County Police.

“We are working hard to do what we can do to combat fentanyl traffic in all trafficking locally,” Kearns said. “However, this issue goes much deeper than Allegheny County. We need additional help from our federal agencies to strike at the source of fentanyl, the Mexican drug cartels.”

Janet Morrison-Heberling lost her 30-year-old daughter, Brianna Sanner, last year to a fatal overdose.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Janet Morrison-Heberling lost her 30-year-old daughter, Brianna Sanner, last year to a fatal overdose.

Allegheny County Sheriff Kevin Kraus said that several law enforcement agencies recently seized $1.6 million of fentanyl from a passenger who arrived on a bus at the Pittsburgh Greyhound Station. Kraus said more help is needed from federal authorities to prevent drugs like this from making their way to the streets.

“I think it's highly important that we have a mechanism in place that can address the supply and demand issue with this dangerous drug on the front end,” he said. “It makes it much easier for local, state and federal police on the back end.”

Casey said the new law would make it more costly to do business for chemical companies in China and drug cartels in Mexico. “In the long run, the best way to reduce the likelihood that we're not going to see more tragedies like we heard today from Janet is to hit these players at their source. Hit them in China and hit them in Mexico very hard,” Casey said.

But some advocates say that additional efforts to increase enforcement will not lead to fewer overdose deaths until more is done to ensure people suffering from addiction have greater access to safer drugs, such as methadone.

Alice Bell, the director of the overdose prevention project at Prevention Point Pittsburgh, said she supports some of Casey’s previous legislation, such as a law that made it easier for addiction patients to get access to medicine such as buprenorphine. But she doesn’t think the new proposed law will help the people she serves.

“They may be effective in reducing the supply of fentanyl, but it will not stop overdose deaths. It will not stop drug-related harms. It will just switch to another drug,” Bell said.

The reason we have a problem with fentanyl now, she said, is because law enforcement cracked down on heroin. And before heroin, she said, there were prescription opioids. And this trend has led to more and more people dying of overdoses, she said, in part because users have a harder time determining a non-lethal dosage of illegal fentanyl.

“When you crack down on drugs, you get more concentrated drugs that are easy to smuggle, you get more dangerous drugs,” Bell said.

Already, Bell said, Allegheny County is seeing more health problems due to an increase in the use of illicit Xylazine, which is cheaper than fentanyl. Bell said local drug users who she works with complain that Xylazine is knocking them out for hours. “They say, ‘I hate it. I hate this stuff. You're just passed out for hours.’ It's got its own withdrawal. It's creating these horrible wounds that people are really freaked out about,” Bell said.

Casey said he hopes The FEND Off Fentanyl Act can pass in the next few months, despite the current political disruption in the House of Representatives, because he said the bill has bipartisan support.

Casey said that he is going to push for additional federal resources to support drug enforcement as well as treatment. “There's more obviously, more to do to make sure that we're helping those who need treatment,” he said. “And we're just beginning, I think, as a nation to get our arms around the resources we're going to need for that.”

Corrected: October 7, 2023 at 9:06 AM EDT
This story has been updated to correct the name of Brianna Sanner and the title of Allegheny County Sheriff Kevin Kraus.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.