A bill to cut off aid to nations and individuals that produce and distribute fentanyl is germinating in the United States Senate, and it could have a large effect on Centre County residents.
U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, R-Pa., discussed how the legislation aims to curb fentanyl shipments to the country, and subsequently, Pennsylvania.
“When it comes to fentanyl, there is a simple, tragic result,” he told a room of state, local and federal officials, reporters and law enforcement Friday afternoon. “It is overwhelmingly, frequently, it is death.”
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol seized a shipment of 110 pounds of fentanyl at the Port of Philadelphia, Toomey said. “That’s enough fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in Pennsylvania. Twice.”
The proposed bill, co-sponsored by Toomey and Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, is called the Blocking Deadly Fentanyl Imports Act. It would require the State Department to identify countries that produce and/or distribute fentanyl in its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report and cut off foreign aid to major fentanyl-producing and -distributing countries if they fail to comply with U.S. drug investigations.
Though Toomey said “our legislation does not single out China,” he made clear that the bill will target China because “it appears that the vast majority of fentanyl ... originates in China.”
Though China does not receive much aid from the U.S., Toomey said there are other ways to make China comply with drug investigations. Chinese entities, he said, regularly use U.S. export/import banks for purchases that they make. It is “certainly completely indefensible for us to be providing taxpayer subsidies for Chinese companies to acquire products if they’re not cooperating fully in the battle against fentanyl,” said Toomey.
He also mentioned the U.S. could vote down funding for China from international economic development banks that the country depends on and apply economic sanctions.
For a synthetic drug that just started appearing on the market a few years ago, fentanyl has significantly upped its body count. According to the National Center for Health Statistics and Centers for Disease Control, fentanyl-related deaths in 2016 were up 540 percent in three years. In Pennsylvania, fentanyl caused about two-thirds of overdose deaths last year, said Toomey.
That percentage holds true for Centre County as well. Twelve of the 17 overdose deaths recorded in the county so far this year, said Sheriff Bryan Sampsel, were fentanyl related. Twenty four people died in Centre County last year due to drug overdoses, said county Commissioner Steve Dershem, chairman of the Centre County Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) Initiative.
In addition to Toomey and Dershem, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania David Freed, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, and State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, spoke at Friday’s press conference.
Corman said the proposed legislation is all about “holding people accountable, holding nations accountable. Why would we give them foreign aid if they are providing drugs to kill our citizenry?”
A particular concern in local communities is how fentanyl poses a danger to first responders, law enforcement and hospital staff who come into contact with it through an overdose victim, said Benninghoff, who worked in hospitals before his tenure as state representative.
Sampsel said he thought the bill would improve the safety of his officers, who have to wear protective masks and gloves to handle overdose victims. He also said the bill would reduce the number of overdoses overall, but especially from fentanyl, which increases the time to death.
“We’ve got to send a message that we love our people, we want them to survive,” Benninghoff said. “This is not some urban crisis for those that are listening ... it’s happening right here in Centre County, right here in rural Pennsylvania.”