It may come as somewhat of a shock for most Utahns to learn that our state has one of the worst rates of opioid drug overdoses in our country. In fact, our state has been consistently ranked among the top 10 for opioid-related overdoses for the past decade. According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 600 people died from opioid-related overdoses in Utah during 2016 alone.
The data for 2016 showed a slight improvement over 2015 due to federal, state and local efforts via the Utah Opioid Task Force, as a result of its cracking down on the over-prescription and sale of legal pain-relieving medications that contain opioids. However, the rate of mortality has remained stubbornly high due to the spread of an illegally manufactured drug called fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid most people had never even heard of five years ago. It is such a potent drug that even a few milligrams of it — equivalent to a grain of rice — can be deadly for anyone who comes into contact with it — even accidentally.
China is the main source of manufacturing the illegal fentanyl finding its way across our borders. Most of the drugs are shipped to Mexican drug cartels that have perfected the process of pressing fentanyl into counterfeit pills and smuggling them into the U.S. for distribution. Sometimes the fentanyl is just shipped in bulk over our borders and is turned into pills in factories on our own soil.
By now, many of us have heard the unfortunate story of Aaron Shamo, an otherwise promising young man, an Eagle Scout from a solid family. Shamo became a drug kingpin in a comfortable Salt Lake City suburb, manufacturing more than 500,000 counterfeit pills made from fentanyl to sell on the dark web.
If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
Just before the recent elections, President Donald Trump signed into law the STOP Act, the first sweeping legislation addressing some of the problems that have given rise to this epidemic. The need for this legislation was so great, less than 10 out of 535 Members of the House of Representatives and Senate voted against it.
While this is an excellent first step, Congress needs to take further, more robust action. We desperately need more security at our borders and, like our Attorney General Sean Reyes, I urge Congress to now pass the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues (SOFA) Act, which would give prosecutors additional powers to go after the ringleaders of the production and manufacturing cartels responsible for selling these deadly drugs in our state.
Make no mistake, we cannot ease up on the pressure required to defeat the spread of this deadly drug that has invaded Utah. State leaders like myself must continue to push for legislation that will secure our communities until the death toll recedes to zero.
Paul Ray represents District 13 in the Utah House of Representatives.