HARTFORD — A trade network of drugs and guns that indirectly caused the death of over a thousand Connecticut residents last year needs to be addressed at the source — the U.S.- Mexico border — according to Senator Chris Murphy, D-CT.
Last week Murphy, who chairs the committee responsible for creating the budget for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, traveled to Mexico and Colombia to meet with officials in the two countries to discuss, among other things, the importation of cocaine and fentanyl into the U.S. and the flow of weapons from the U.S. into Mexico.
“I went … in order to learn about how we can better fund anti-narcotics enforcement and border operations, to make sure that less of this product, less of this poison, is getting into the United States and less of these guns are moving south across our border,” he said.
Of the approximately 1,500 deaths from drug overdoses in Connecticut last year, 86 percent were related to fentanyl, according to Susan Logan, director of the Injury and Violence Surveillance Unit at the State Department of Public Health. That’s a jump from 2015, when about a quarter of overdose deaths involved the synthetic opioid.
“It’s a big problem here in Connecticut and in the Northeast,” Logan said at a press conference on Tuesday. “We have a very volatile drug supply here in Connecticut. [Fentanyl] is getting into cocaine. It’s in heroin. We’re seeing it in crack cocaine. We’re seeing it mixed with Xylazine, which is a veterinary tranquilizer.”
In Hartford, the number of deaths from fentanyl overdoses increased from 17 in 2015 to 106 in 2021, according to Hartford Health and Human Services Department Director Liany Arroyo. Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody said that the department had a 471 percent increase in fentanyl seizures over the last two years, with the number nearly doubling last year.
Thody told CT Examiner that there was only so much his department could do about the fentanyl in Connecticut.
“We’re picking off bags of fentanyl versus kilos coming in at the border,” he said.
And Hartford isn’t the only city in Connecticut where fentanyl use has increased. Chief Michael Finkelstein in East Lyme said that his police department had received an increasing number of calls about fentanyl-related overdoses in the past few years.
Finkelstein said one of his biggest concerns is that fentanyl is showing up in so many different substances, including drugs like Adderall or Percocet.
“We’ve had individuals that have indicated that they’ve taken what they thought was a pill that ended up coming back positive for fentanyl. We’ve had people that have smoked crack who tested positive for fentanyl. As well as a couple of the overdose deaths where we found empty baggies that would be consistent with someone knowing they’re using either fentanyl or heroin,” said Finkelstein.
Finkelstein also said that the increasing prevalence of the antidote naloxone, known as Narcan, has led to people overdosing, being revived and never seeking medical care afterward. He said this can cause a “re-overdose” in which the narcan wears off while someone still has fentanyl in their system.
“If it was just heroin, a lot of times Narcan’s sufficient, but when they’re taking higher doses and stronger fentanyl — one dose of Narcan isn’t effective in solving that problem,” said Finkelstein.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Murphy said that Congress had appropriated $700 million to improve the technology used to inspect vehicles crossing the border. Rather than inspecting each car manually, the new technology uses x-ray and thermal imaging to scan cars passing through. So far, he said, only about 10 percent of the funding had been spent. He also said he wanted to put aside an additional $40 million to invest in artificial intelligence.
“So that as we get all of this new data about the fentanyl crossing the border, we can very quickly turn it around, analyze it, to be able to move law enforcement to the places where the product is overwhelming the system,” Murphy explained.
Murphy said that in addition to working with Mexico, the U.S. also needed to improve its relations with China. He said that while most fentanyl that enters the U.S. comes from Mexico, the chemical precursors for the drug are transported to Mexico from China.
Drug cartels, he said, had switched their focus from heroin to fentanyl, realizing that fentanyl was much more lucrative.
Another issue, Murphy said, is that often drug cartel members are carrying more sophisticated guns than Mexican law enforcement officials — weaponry that is coming from the United States.
“The truth of the matter is, we really aren’t checking American commerce moving into Mexico for illegal guns,” said Murphy. “And that’s a mistake.”
Murphy said he was proposing that Congress appropriate $50 million to check cargo moving from the U.S. into Mexico.
“[Mexican law enforcement] are furious about the trade from the U.S. to Mexico,” Murphy told CT Examiner.
In response to a question about whether air travel from the southern border into Connecticut and New York could impact the fentanyl trade, Murphy acknowledged that some fentanyl was transported by air. But he said that air wasn’t the “most significant” way that the drug enters the country.
“The vast majority of fentanyl is coming into the United States on the Mexican border through ports of entry. And so that’s where our real focus has to be,” he said.