Drug Policy

The Flap Over Biden's Comment About 2 Fentanyl Deaths Obscures Prohibition's Role in Causing Them

Both parties are complicit in the lethal policies that gave us fentanyl disguised as Percocet.


Did President Joe Biden laugh about "a poor mother who lost two kids to fentanyl"? No, he did not. But the context of his controversial remarks reveals bipartisan complicity in the prohibitionist policies that lead to senseless deaths like these.

On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing that was framed as an indictment of the Biden administration's border policies. One of the witnesses was Rebecca Kiessling, a Rochester Hills, Michigan, lawyer whose sons Caleb, 20, and Kyler, 18, died in July 2020 after swallowing counterfeit Percocet pills that contained fentanyl. Although that hazard was created by the war on drugs, Kiessling blames the government for failing to wage that war aggressively enough.

"Law enforcement made it clear to me that this fentanyl came from Mexico," Kiessling said during her tearful, heartbreaking testimony. "I didn't know that my boys were taking anything that could kill them. They didn't think that they were either. They thought that they were safe with pills."

Kiessling urged the government to "do something" about the influx of illicit fentanyl. "If we had Chinese troops lining up along our southern border with weapons aimed at our people, with weapons of mass destruction aimed at our cities, you damn well know you would do something about it," she said. "We have a weather balloon from China going across the country. Nobody died, and everybody's freaking out about it. But 100,000 die every year, and nothing's being done. Not enough is being done….This is a war. Act like it."

Although Kiessling said "this should not be politicized," that is exactly what the Republicans who control the committee were doing, and she lent support to their efforts. "You talk about welcoming those crossing our border, seeking protection," she said. "You're welcoming drug dealers across our border. You're giving them protection. You're not protecting our children."

After the hearing, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) took that implied criticism of the Biden administration a step further. "Listen to this mother, who lost two children to fentanyl poisoning, tell the truth about both of her son's [sic] murders because of the Biden administrations [sic] refusal to secure our border and stop the Cartel's [sic] from murdering Americans everyday by Chinese fentanyl," Greene wrote on Twitter.

Since Caleb and Kyler Kiessling died six months before Biden took office, of course, it is logically impossible that his border policies had anything to do with their deaths. That's the point Biden was making when he addressed a meeting of House Democrats in Baltimore on Wednesday night.

Greene "was very specific recently, saying that a mom, a poor mother who lost two kids to fentanyl, that I killed her sons," Biden said. "Well, the interesting thing: That fentanyl they took came during the last administration." Then he laughed.

Biden's laughter offended Kiessling. "This is how you speak about the death of my sons?" she said in a Facebook video. "Because a congresswoman misspoke? You mock the loss of my sons? How dare you? What is the matter with you? Almost every Democrat on the committee offered condolences. They at least had the decency to do that. You can't even do that? You have to mock my pain?"

In context, it is clear that Biden, who described Kiessling as "a poor mother who lost two kids to fentanyl," was not mocking her pain or the loss of her sons. He was very clearly mocking Greene. His lighthearted demeanor nevertheless was insensitive and tone-deaf, as Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) pointed out on Twitter.

"@POTUS needs to apologize for this immediately," Lee tweeted. "No person, let alone the president of the United States, laughs when speaking about a mother who lost two sons to fentanyl poisoning."

Other Republicans went further. Jake Schneider, director of rapid response for the Republican National Committee, called Biden "a disgusting person," adding, "Losing children to fentanyl trafficking is never, ever funny. Just vile." Schneider averred that "Biden's laugh at fentanyl deaths for cheap political points exposes the real Joe."

While Lee's take seems about right to me, Schneider himself was trying to score "cheap political points" by hyperbolically claiming that Biden's insensitivity reveals him as "a disgusting person" who "laugh[s] at fentanyl deaths." House Republicans likewise were trying to score "cheap political points" by deploying Kiessling's ordeal as a weapon in their assault on Biden's border policies, which plainly cannot explain the dramatic increase in opioid-related deaths that began more than two decades ago and accelerated during the Trump administration.

This partisan nonsense conceals the reality that Democrats and Republicans share responsibility for policies that have contributed to that trend by making drug use more dangerous. That starts with bipartisan support for prohibition, which creates a black market where the quality and potency of drugs are highly variable and unpredictable. Prohibition also pushes traffickers toward more-potent substances, which are easier to smuggle. Enforcement of prohibition makes drug use riskier still by encouraging substitution of relatively safe products with more hazardous alternatives.

The "opioid crisis" illustrates all three of those phenomena. The crackdown on pain pills replaced legally manufactured, reliably dosed pharmaceuticals with iffy black-market products of unknown provenance and composition. Meanwhile, prohibition fostered the rise of fentanyl as a heroin booster and substitute. Because fentanyl is a synthetic drug that does not require conspicuous crops, it is easier to produce without attracting attention. It is also much cheaper and much more potent, which makes shipments smaller and easier to conceal. The rise of fentanyl made illegal drugs even more of a crap shoot.

In light of all this, it is not surprising that the government's ham-handed efforts to reduce opioid-related deaths backfired. As Kiessling noted in her testimony, "numbers are going up, not down." Worse, the upward trend in drug-related deaths accelerated after the government succeeded in reducing opioid prescriptions, which predictably drove nonmedical users toward black-market substitutes that were much more likely to kill them. The anti-opioid campaign hurt bona fide patients while simultaneously increasing the fentanyl death toll.

Now fentanyl is showing up not only in heroin but also in cocaine, methamphetamine, and ersatz pain pills like the ones that Kiessling's sons took. "My children got fake Percocets that were fentanyl," she said. "There was no Percocet in it at all." Although "they thought that they were safe with pills," they were wrong, because those pills did not contain what they expected. That sort of thing does not happen in a legal market. While Kiessling attributes her sons' deaths to inadequate enforcement of prohibition, it was prohibition that killed them.

Because politicians will never admit their complicity in drug-related deaths, they instead call for more of the same. In his first State of the Union address, Biden promised to "beat the opioid epidemic" by "stop[ping] the flow of illicit drugs" and "working with state and local law enforcement to go after the traffickers." But as always, that was a vain promise, because prohibition plants the seeds of its own defeat.

Prohibition enables traffickers to earn a premium for undertaking the special risks involved in supplying an illegal product. That means they are highly motivated to find ways around whatever roadblocks the government throws up between them and their customers. Given all the places where drugs can be produced and all the ways they can be transported to people who want them, the idea that the government could "stop the flow" if only it made a more determined effort is a fantasy.

As critics of prohibition often point out, the government cannot keep drugs out of correctional facilities, so even turning the entire country into a prison camp would not do the trick. The most that drug warriors can hope to accomplish is to impose costs on traffickers that are high enough to raise retail prices, thereby discouraging consumption.

The basic problem with that strategy, as drug policy scholars such as University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter have been pointing out for years, is that illegal drugs acquire most of their value close to the consumer. The cost of replacing destroyed crops and seized shipments is therefore relatively small, a tiny fraction of the "street value" trumpeted by law enforcement agencies. As you get closer to the retail level, the replacement cost rises, but the amount that can be seized at one time falls. That dilemma helps explain why throwing more money at source control and interdiction never seems to have a substantial, lasting effect on drug consumption.

Fentanyl compounds these challenges. Because it is much more potent than heroin, a package weighing less than an ounce can replace one that weighs a couple of pounds. These packages are readily concealed and hard to detect, whether they are sent through the mail or carried over the border.

Focusing on the latter route, Republicans say the problem is that Biden is letting too many people in—a charge that Kiessling echoed. But as Reason's Fiona Harrigan notes, fentanyl coming from Mexico typically is transported through ports of entry, and it is usually carried by U.S. citizens. "In order to smuggle fentanyl through a port of entry," says Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, "cartels hire primarily U.S. citizens, who are the least likely to attract heightened scrutiny when crossing into the United States."

Reichlin-Melnick "analyzed every CBP press release and official Twitter post mentioning fentanyl seizures from December 2021 to May 2022," Harrigan writes. "Only two involved people crossing between ports of entry, and of the 42 incidents where CBP mentioned a smuggler's nationality, 33—or 79 percent—involved U.S. citizens."

It is plainly impossible to "stop the flow of illicit drugs" across the border, and even substantially increasing the share of shipments that are seized would entail serious disruptions of trade and travel. Intercepting small packages of fentanyl in the mail is an equally daunting challenge.

Even if the U.S. "managed to stop 100 percent of direct [fentanyl] sales to the US, enterprising dealers [would] simply sell into nations such as the UK, repackage the product, and then resell it into the US," Roger Bate noted in a 2018 American Enterprise Institute report. "Intercepting all packages from the UK and other EU nations to the US will not be possible." And "whether or not drugs are available to the general public via the mail, drug dealers have domestic production and overland and sea routes and other courier services that deliver the product to the US."

Kiessling is understandably frustrated by this situation. "You have to stop it from its source," she told the House committee. But the U.S. government has been trying to do that for more than a century. It has always failed, and it always will, because the effort is doomed by the economics of black markets.

While politicians do not have the power to "stop the flow," they can make matters worse by trying. The deaths of Kiessling's sons are just the tip of that awful iceberg.