Eleven health experts issued an urgent plea in a private letter to high-level Obama administration officials in May 2016. Thousands of people were dying from overdoses of fentanyl — the deadliest drug to ever hit U.S. streets — and the administration needed to take immediate action. The epidemic had been escalating for three years. The experts pressed officials to declare fentanyl a national “public health emergency” that would put a laserlike focus on combating the emerging epidemic and warn the nation about the threat, the Washington Post reports. “The fentanyl crisis represents an extraordinary public health challenge — and requires an extraordinary public health response,” the experts wrote to officials, including the “drug czar” and the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The administration did not act on the request.
The Post calls the decision “one in a series of missed opportunities, oversights and half-measures by federal officials who failed to grasp how quickly fentanyl was creating another — and far more fatal — wave of the opioid epidemic.” In the span of a few years, fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller 50 times more powerful than heroin, became the drug scourge of our time. “This is a massive institutional failure, and I don’t think people have come to grips with it,” said John Walters, chief of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy between 2001 and 2009. Federal officials saw fentanyl as an appendage to the overall opioid crisis rather than a unique threat that required its own strategy. On Jan. 11, 2017, in the waning days of the administration, Obama delivered his annual National Drug Control Strategy to Congress. Four years after the epidemic began, the White House called fentanyl a national crisis.