Musician and Grammy-nominated singer Jason DeFord, known as Jelly Roll, took the political stage to encourage lawmakers to pass anti-fentanyl legislation and expressed his own struggles with substance abuse in an effort to end the opioid crisis.
DeFord testified as a witness before the Senate Subcommittee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. The musician voiced his support to encourage the passage of the bill, the Fentanyl Eradication and Narcotics Deterrence (FEND) Off Fentanyl Act.
DeFord stated during his opening remarks of his testimony, “I was a part of the problem. I am here now, standing as a man that wants to be a part of the solution.”
Last June, the bill was unanimously passed by the Senate Banking Committee. However, the bill was blocked in December from being included in the National Defense Authorization Act by the U.S. Representative, Patrick McHenry (R-NC).
The FEND Off Fentanyl Act targets sanctions and anti-money laundering organizations in efforts to target China and Mexico’s illicit fentanyl supply chain.
For decades, America has remained defeated by the “war on drugs.” And even decades later, America is in a full blown, fatal opioid crisis like never before.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration concludes an average of six out of 10 fentanyl-laced synthetic pills contain a fatal amount of fentanyl. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, an estimate of 110,000 have died from drug overdose during 2022.
Former prosecutor, current harm reduction reformer and Vice President of Government and Public Relations for Haven Health Management, Chad Sabora, raises questions and concerns as to why America continues to lean on outdated policies that have never been previously successful.
“So why, in the face of overwhelming evidence of failure, do we continue to lean on outdated policies that unconsciously perpetuate this vicious cycle, causing irreparable damage to our society”, said Sabora, a long standing person in recovery for substance use disorder.
Sabora identifies the historical complex issue associated with multiple contributing factors that led a build up to the current opioid crisis. Sabora recognizes how prescription opioids have played one role out of several that enabled the opioid epidemic. He notes that it is important to recognize how prohibition-based policies have also played a significant role that have caused shifts in drug use patterns.
In 2010, the U.S. government increased enforcement against prescription opioid misuse, invoking stricter regulation of prescriptions, increasing focus on shutting down pill mills, and prosecuting over-prescribing doctors. Sabora stated that even though stricter enforcement was successful in certain areas, it caused alternative issues in other areas.
“Heroin use spiked following this shift in policy. As prescription opioids became harder to obtain, many turned to heroin, which was often cheaper and more readily available. This led to a significant increase in heroin-related overdoses and deaths,” said Sabora.
During 2016, the CDC issued new guidelines to minimize the prescription of opioids for chronic pain. These guidelines suggested non-opioid therapies as the first step of treatment and urged doctors to only prescribe the drug only if the benefits for pain management outweigh the risk.
The CDC guidelines caused doctors to be hesitant to prescribe opioids at all, fearing that they may be subject to legal consequences. This caused issues that contributed to the opioid epidemic.
“Because many doctors became hesitant to prescribe opioids to legitimate pain patients. They were left without access to necessary medication, driving some towards illicit substances like fentanyl,” said Sabora.
Sabora stated that the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, is significantly more potent than other opioids. The increased use of the drug and mixture with other illicit
Sabora believes that the sequence of events exposes the complexities of addressing the opioid crisis. Why do most of us only point fingers at the pharmaceutical industry and neglect the decisions of policymakers which fuel the opioid crisis?
Sabora clarifies that DeFord’s testimony leaves chronic pain patients and people struggling with substance use disorder abandoned with no proper solution implemented.
“The first group being left behind is the chronic pain population. These individuals require opioid painkillers to treat their medical conditions but have lost access to them due to the crackdown on painkillers. As a result, their ability to obtain medication has significantly diminished, forcing them to turn to the black market to purchase counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl resulting with an increase of overdoses amongst communities,” argues Sabora.
He continues, “The second population being ignored are individuals with substance use disorders. These individuals use illicit substances to self-medicate the underlying causes of their disorders, such as trauma or co-existing mental health conditions. By disregarding their use of illicit substances, we deny the fact that they are trying to cope with their mental health issues. This stance ignores the fact that substance use disorder is, in fact, a mental health problem.”
At the end of DeFord’s testimony, the musician expressed his support of the Senator’s efforts to advance this legislation, claiming it as a proactive response. The musician mentioned previous reaction failures regarding the crack epidemic and the painkiller crisis. However, Sabora expresses questionable concerns regarding the legislation.
“Jelly Roll highlighted the failures of our past reactions to the crack epidemic and the painkiller crisis, decrying them as merely reactive. However, I find it perplexing that this legislation would be called proactive since it is based on the same punitive and prohibitionist measures as all previous drug policies,” said Sabora.
The U.S. Federal Government’s response to the crack epidemic in the 1980’s is recognized as a planned implementation of legislation that disproportionately impacted people of color and their communities.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 initiated mandatory sentences for drug offenses, which were harsher for crack cocaine offenses, versus, powder cocaine offenses.
Crack cocaine was predominantly used in impoverished, urban areas, mainly associated within African American communities. On the other hand, powder cocaine was commonly used within white American communities. As a result, the disparate sentencing guidelines disproportionately impacted the African American communities.
Sabora explains how the crack epidemic is a prime example of “The New Jim Crow,” written by Michelle Alexander. The 1980’s epidemic is used as a reference in the book articulating how the system of mass incarceration serves to regulate large numbers of African Americans to a permanent second-class status.
Sabora also states how Raegan’s administration, “War on Drugs,” also played a significant role in the issue.
“The aggressive law enforcement strategies and the media portrayal of crack users as violent and dangerous created a climate of fear, leading to public support for harsher drug laws,” said Sabora.
Just like DeFord expressed in his testimony, Sabora agreed with the musician that the government had a failed reactive strategy to the crack epidemic.
“The U.S. government’s response to the crack epidemic was definitely not reactive,” said Sabora.
Sabora identifies how the U.S. has always approached drug use from a criminal justice perspective rather than as public health. Sabora explains how the different perspectives have impacted people’s health and mass incarceration stemming from the failure in addressing the core problem.
The root cause of substance use comes down to mental health issues, socio-economic factors, and lack of education pertaining to safe drug use. The U.S. government has always attempted to tackle drug use epidemics using the punitive punishment approach. Unfortunately, this approach has led to mass incarceration, high recidivism rate of nonviolent drug offenders and a rapidly growing rate of overdose deaths.
Sabora states that with a focus on prohibition and punishment and the removal of medical opioid drugs from the market, people have turned to the unregulated black market. With this change of direction, people are at a higher risk of overdose fatality causing fatal statistics with the opioid crisis to sky rocket.
“While the FEND Off Fentanyl Act aims to address the fentanyl crisis, its approach is consistent with previous U.S. drug policies that have been critiqued for their punitive and prohibitionist focus. Without a parallel emphasis on harm reduction strategies and addressing the root causes of substance use, this legislation will exacerbate the crisis rather than alleviate it,” said Sabora.