U.S. House ignored Trump. Let’s finish the job: reauthorize FISA

Jaime Castenada Jr. was reportedly out celebrating a family baptism when he met an alleged drug dealer in Hammond, Ind., now accused of selling him $20 of cocaine. Within a few hours, Castenada was found outside, police say, propped between a car and a tree, bleeding from the nose. The drug had been laced with dangerous fentanyl, a coroner found, and death came swiftly for the 27-year-old father of two, as it has for the 100,000-plus Americans that opioids are killing every year.

The opioid epidemic that has rocked America for decades just keeps getting worse, and Congress has done little to stop the flow of these deadly narcotics into the U.S. A bipartisan border bill that would have made a big positive difference fell to election-year politics, after ex-President Donald Trump opposed it.

Last week, Trump was at it again, opposing legislation to reform Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes warrantless spying on foreigners abroad.  The program has been vital for protecting America. It has saved American lives, and Trump, aided by the far-right bomb-throwers in the House GOP, tried to scuttle an opportunity to expand it to address the opioid crisis.

On Friday, cooler heads prevailed, and America is on track to get an enhanced weapon against the opioid plague. Under 702, U.S. authorities work with telecom companies to secretly gather phone and electronic communications of foreigners outside the U.S., a process that needs to be more restrictive so that private information from American citizens isn’t swept up in the net.

Along with catching terrorists, spies and hackers, 702 also has shown promise in exposing the network of drug smugglers supplying deadly fentanyl. We support not only renewing 702 but expanding its use against opioid trafficking.

What’s needed is a gloves-off response targeting Chinese companies that produce the chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl and Mexican dealers who mix the dangerous concoction and spirit it across the border.

It’s worthwhile to consider how America became such a fentanyl hotbed. In the 1970s and 80s, heroin and other addictive opium derivatives were a serious problem but came nowhere near killing as many people as opioids do today. Europe, too, has long dealt with the effects of heroin addiction.

During the 1990s, however, America and Europe diverged. In the U.S., Purdue Pharma, run by the notorious Sackler family, took advantage of lax oversight to make a fortune pushing synthetic opioids. Lying about the addictive properties of its cash-cow opioid OxyContin, Purdue flooded the streets with pills, raking in billions of dollars while destroying lives and communities. In Europe, restrictions on pharmaceutical companies prevented their executives from following the Sacklers’ lethal playbook.

As a result, apart from hot spots like Scotland, fentanyl is rarely abused in Europe. In the U.S., however, when Purdue was finally driven out of the pill-pushing business, the enormous market it created for opioids was filled with fentanyl.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in a month or two on a bankruptcy-court deal that would let the Sacklers walk off with much of their fortune and no further liability. The same avoidance of consequences has been mostly true of the Chinese and Mexican smugglers who have filled the gap left by Purdue and its ilk.

Anyone who sells someone a fatal overdose of an illegal substance must be punished, of course. But locking up small-scale dealers is not going to solve this devastating problem. Expanding Section 702 of FISA, on the other hand, could help a great deal.

This editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.