McMorris Rodgers is Math Challenged

Fentanyl and the Southern Border

The March 3 McMorris Rodgers’ “Weekly Update” email, the propaganda email she sends to her loyal followers, came with the subject line “Fentanyl Is Tearing Families Apart”. The header read, “Stopping the Flow at the Southern Border”. In late February McMorris Rodgers led fifteen of the fifty-two members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on a visit to McAllen and two other Texas towns along our border with Mexico to hold “field hearings”, a media event to demonstrate Republican commitment to “Stopping the Flow”. (Rep. McMorris Rodgers [R-CD5, Eastern Washington], largely by virtue of her seniority among Republicans in the U.S. House, took over as chairperson of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on January 3rd).

McMorris Rodgers’ email links to a minimally visited (625 hits in twelve days) zoom interview on Facebook. Spokane County Sheriff John Knowles appears on the same Zoom interview. In the email and the video’s introduction McMorris Rodgers starts off by demonstrating her devotion to Republican attack-messaging (the bold is mine): 

One thing is crystal clear: President Biden’s open border policies are turning every town into a border town. 

Sadly, President Biden’s open border policies are only making things worse.

This is another demonstration of a fundamental principle of propaganda: if you tell a lie often enough people will believe it. This particular Republican lie has the added partisan benefit of advertising to prospective immigrants the falsehood that the border is “open”. It is a frequently repeated public service announcement that likely makes the problem worse. 

At the very end of the Facebook interview McMorris Rodgers says, “Since the beginning of 2023 DEA has seized 4.5 million fake pills laced with fentanyl and Customs and Border Patrol [sic] has seized more than 1400 pounds of fentanyl…An open border policy has created this crisis.” A little earlier she tells the audience that Customs and Border Protection estimates that they are intercepting only five to ten percent of the fentanyl that comes across the southern border—and that most of that is collected at the official ports of entry. (She then implies what she clearly does not know—or have evidence for: that a lot of the remaining 90-95% comes across the border elsewhere than the ports of entry.)

Let’s realistically examine the numbers she offers. If, and this is a big if, all of the 1400 pounds of fentanyl interdicted just in the first six weeks of 2023 were accurately divided into “therapeutic” doses (0.3 mg), it would be enough to lace into more than 2 billion pills (yes, that’s with a “b”). Conversely, this 1400 pounds of fentanyl divided into lethal doses, each of 2 milligrams, would be sufficient to stop the breathing of nearly every man, women, and child in the U.S. (318 million lethal doses). Those by themselves are nearly incomprehensible numbers—but that was the amount of fentanyl McMorris Rodgers says was seized in just the first six weeks of 2023. Crazier still, those doses are thought to represent only 5 or 10 percent of the total amount amount of drug that law enforcement agencies estimate are pouring across the border. 

Fentanyl’s effect (either pleasant or lethal) is so concentrated that the amount displayed below (actually an ounce of sugar) is sufficient to divide up into 14,000 lethal doses or 94,000 ‘pleasant’ doses. (The block, shown for scale, is a 1.25 inch cube.)

Ask yourself how many places in a truck, a camper, or any automobile one could hide that amount of moldable powdery solid before crossing the border at a legitimate port of entry. 

McMorris Rodgers is appropriately concerned about the epidemic of fentanyl-related death, especially among young people in the U.S., for whom fentanyl overdose is now the leading cause of death. However, her politically convenient, divisive, blame-casting propaganda as the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee is either unserious or delusional—or both. McMorris Rodgers’ propagandistic nod to Trump-induced border wall fever—combined with her tiresome, perennial Republican rhetorical drumbeat of “open borders” is nothing but cheap politics. She is not usefully engaged in solving this issue. She is interested in exploiting it for political gain.

If even a minor dent can be made in the flow of fentanyl across the southern border, technology and effort must be focused on the ports of entry where thousands of trucks and cars pass every day—not on the hinterlands. Willy Sutton, the infamous bank robber, would laugh at the Republican focus on the rest of the border: that’s not “where the money is.” Moreover, despite McMorris Rodgers’ rhetoric, as this article details, the Biden administration is already busy tightening the ports of entry (if only the Republican House majority will vote for the money to support the effort—instead of threatening the country with bankruptcy over the debt limit).

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the numbers that McMorris Rodgers herself presents is this: there is no amount of money spent on border intervention (and criminalization) that will make anything more than a small to modest dent in the fentanyl epidemic. 

If McMorris Rodgers were more interested in actually tackling the problem of death from unintentional overdoses—instead of constantly trying to score partisan political points to impress the Republican base—she would turn more of her attention and legislation elsewhere. For example, she might support providing reality-based education about the dangers of ingesting street drugs and increasing the availability of life-saving interventions like naloxone (Narcan). (Unfortunately, that sort of personal empowerment is not typical of Republican orthodoxy. Think of their resistance to reality-based sex ed.)

Effective government sponsored efforts against the fentanyl epidemic will have to wait until Republicans either are returned to the minority or until they perceive that harping on closing the border is no longer a winning issue for them. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. In this same video Spokane County Sheriff John Knowles points out something with which we all should be able to agree: we need more drug treatment resources to in order to offer an effective and real alternative to incarceration. Preferring to concentrate on the punitive side of the equation, McMorris Rodgers offers barely a word on treatment or prevention.