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Keep dangerous foreign opioids out of Georgia

Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese watches as the body of Sgt. Patrick Sondron is removed from a caisson during his funeral at at Magnolia Park Cemetery in Warner Robins Thursday.
Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese watches as the body of Sgt. Patrick Sondron is removed from a caisson during his funeral at at Magnolia Park Cemetery in Warner Robins Thursday. jvorhees@macon.com

A batch of deadly knock-off painkillers is circulating through Georgia. Five people have already died. Over 30 have overdosed.

Georgia’s law-enforcement professionals and health officials are scurrying to stop the spread of these harmful pills. But in Washington, Congress may soon make it easier for counterfeit drugs like these — along with illicit prescription medicines — to enter the United States.

This effort doesn’t make any sense. Loosening restrictions on drug importation will worsen the opioid crisis.

Opioids include everything from morphine and heroin to prescription medicines like oxycodone. The growth in opioid abuse has been catastrophic. In Georgia, deaths from prescription opioid overdose grew tenfold between 1999 and 2014. In fact, annual opioid overdose fatalities in our state are almost on par with deaths from motor vehicle accidents.

This tragic trend isn’t unique to Georgia. Nationwide, roughly 2 million people either abuse or are dependent on some form of opioid. More than 90 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl — which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine — has proven especially deadly. Fatalities from the drug and other synthetic opioids rose by 79 percent between 2013 and 2014.

Fentanyl is so dangerous because it often is disguised as a less powerful opioid. In May, Georgia issued a public safety alert to warn that fentanyl had been found in pills that supposedly only contained oxycodone. Not surprisingly, the knock-off Percocet pills behind the recent spate of overdoses contained a modified form of fentanyl.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription drugs — many containing high levels of fentanyl — have entered the country from places like Mexico and Canada. Many of those drugs end up in Georgia. In fact, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Lab has discovered 454 instances of counterfeit pills since 2015.

Counterfeit opioids shipped here from abroad pose a grave danger. Yet lawmakers want to lift barriers on importing drugs. Without these restrictions, it would be far easier for dealers to traffic illicit substances across our border.

The bill that’s under consideration, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and called the “Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act,” would allow individuals, wholesalers, and pharmacies in the United States to import prescription drugs from Canada and other developed nations. That would inadvertently make it easier to import and distribute deadly counterfeit drugs.

It includes a variety of safety measures, such as requiring the Food and Drug Administration to certify all foreign sellers of prescription drugs. But such provisions would be difficult to enforce for the thousands of internet pharmacies operating abroad. In an analysis of 10,000 online sellers by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, 96 percent failed to comply with American pharmacy laws and standards. Many lack a physical address and are simply fronts for foreign drug labs.

While the FDA enforces rigorous safety requirements for America’s tightly supervised drug supply chain, those standards will be impossible to maintain once medicines begin to enter the country from abroad. The Canadian government doesn’t check packages imported from abroad and routed to America — so our law-enforcement friends north of the border wouldn’t be able to intercept illicit drug packages either.

Thankfully, Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have opposed Sen. Sanders bill and remain committed to stemming the flow of harmful drugs — particularly fentany — into the country.

Letting people import drugs from poorly regulated foreign pharmacies would exacerbate America’s devastating opioid crisis. The last thing Georgians need is more fake and laced opioids on the streets.

Terry W. Deese is the Peach County Sheriff and president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

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