Illegally manufactured fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. kills tens of thousands of people each year and worsens addictions for many more. Not only those with opioid use disorder suffer, but also their families and communities, in a decades-long crisis that has blighted  the country. The demands that we seal the borders against fentanyl are completely understandable. But also completely unrealistic.

Dedicated law enforcement efforts have produced large seizures, like the recent Blue Lotus Operation that confiscated over 900 pounds of drugs containing fentanyl. But traffickers can easily replace what is seized.

It is time to stop setting up law enforcement for failure by asking the impossible and instead embrace its vital role in cutting illicit drug market-related violence, disorder and corruption.  

Fentanyl is a synthetic drug with no natural limits on its production, not a crop-based drug like cocaine or heroin. It is absurdly cheap for high-level traffickers to replace seizures. The traditional view held that international traffickers could make or buy fentanyl in Mexico for roughly $10,000 per kilogram but even if the replacement cost were $100,000—which may be more typical within US borders—then that is 10 cents per milligram, and there are typically only 2-2.5 milligrams of fentanyl in each counterfeit pill they press. Each pill might sell for $5 to $10 on the street.

The physics are as daunting as the economics. Fentanyl is extraordinarily potent (perhaps 30 to 50 times stronger by weight than the street heroin it is replacing), so the quantities smuggled are tiny compared to the U.S.-Mexican trade within which smuggling is embedded. It’s impossible to know how much illegal fentanyl is consumed in the U.S., especially given federal cuts in data collection, but our research suggests that the amount of pure fentanyl consumed in the US in 2021 was in the single digit metric tons. To put that in perspective, the U.S. imports more than 1,000,000 metric tons of avocados each year from Mexico.  

Synthetic chemistry advances have made it easy to produce fentanyl with safer and simpler precursor ingredients, ones that have multiple legitimate uses precluding their ban, and to do so at room temperature without sophisticated or specialized equipment. Law enforcement shut down an earlier fentanyl outbreak in the mid-2000s, when production was concentrated in a single lab in Toluca, Mexico. Now fentanyl production is distributed, with no single critical lab.

As a result, while there are calls for ratcheting up maximum sentences for supplying fentanyl and doubling down on border control, it’s hard to imagine those measures drying up supply in the long-term. That is not to say that localized short-run shortages cannot have effects, but even these are hard to create given the ubiquity of fentanyl in much of the US.

It is great mistake, however, to leap from pessimism about shutting off fentanyl’s supply to a conclusion that law enforcement has no vital role to play, let alone that we should abandon all drug control efforts. Prohibition continues to make illegal drugs far more expensive than they would be if production and sale were legal, as the massive declines in the price per unit of THC after cannabis legalization attest. And higher prices do reduce consumption, even of addictive drugs.

Rather, freeing law enforcement agencies from unrealistic expectations that they can shut off supply allows them to focus on reducing the violence, corruption, money laundering and other harms associated with illegal markets at the local, national and international levels.

To start, we should recognize that not all drug traffickers, dealers, or markets are equally noxious. Some are merely bad; others are much worse. For example, some dealers murder, but most do not. (Roughly 100 times as many people sell drugs in the U.S. each year as commit murder.)  Freeing law enforcement from chasing quantity would permit them to hunt down and shut down the most violent, corrupt, and destructive individuals and organizations.

Re-envisioning drug law enforcement in the age of fentanyl should be a collective discussion pursued with open minds and few preconceptions, but we offer three examples:

  • Target sellers who deliberately sell fentanyl to inexperienced users. Internet sales of counterfeit pills, which facilitates purchases by people with no tolerance for this powerful opioid, are the most dangerous. These distributors may cause many more deaths per kilogram of fentanyl than those who sell to experienced users through traditional in-person distribution chains.

  • Helping to reduce corruption, including in Mexico and Central America. Some drug traffickers move drugs primarily by stealth; others move drugs primarily by corrupting or intimidating government officials. The latter are much more damaging to society, and focusing greater enforcement on them can induce trafficking organization to reduce their use of that tactic. Similar focus can be directed at organizations that kill journalists.

  • Suppressing brazen dealers and open-air drug markets. In the 1980s, when Americans listed “drugs” as the number one problem facing the nation, they did so in no small part because open-air drug markets were harming the quality of life in large sections of many American cities. Those problems have receded because of a combination of policing strategies and cell phones making it easier to arrange retail transactions discreetly, but open-air markets still exist in some areas. Preventing retail selling from creating disorder and trauma for communities and neighborhood businesses would be a better use of policing’s unique powers.   

The limits of trying to seal the border from illegally manufactured fentanyl are clear. The bipartisan, bicameral and multiagency Commission on Combatting Synthetic Opioid Trafficking noted that all the fentanyl consumed in the U.S. each year “could easily fit into a shipping container or a truck trailer, which seriously challenges interdiction.” We must reconsider drug law enforcement goals in the age of fentanyl and be thoughtful about how law enforcement resources can best reduce the many harms associated with the opioid trade.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.