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Opioid town hall: Stopping the opioid crisis at the southern border

FILE - This Jan. 10, 2019 drone photo shows ports along the Rio Grande River in Laredo, Texas. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

San Antonio stations KABB and WOAI along with Sinclair Broadcast Group hosted the second town hall meeting in a 12-part series to raise awareness of America's deadly opioid crisis.

The Thursday event took place just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas. Guest speakers addressed the challenge of preventing opioids from entering the country through the border as well as solutions to the addiction crisis that has affected millions nationwide.

Eric Bolling moderated the town hall with featured speakers who are on the front lines of the drug crisis. Bolling and his wife Adrienne became outspoken activists in the battle against opioid addiction after losing their 19-year-old son to an accidental overdose in 2017.

Speakers include Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican congressman whose district includes 820 miles of border territory, Democratic Rep Henry Cuellar who represents San Antonio and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who told Bolling that he lost his older sister, Maryanne to a drug overdose.

Local and state officials also participated in the event including Laredo's assistant police chief Jesus Torres, director of the Laredo Health Organization, Hector Gonzales and manager of Bexar County's Joint Opioid task Force TJ Mayes. Scott Olson, the CEO of Pathway Healthcare Addiction Treatment Offices also spoke with Bolling to address addiction recovery strategies.

The Thursday town hall coincided with President Donald Trump's tour of the border and nearly three-week government shutdown fight over the issue of border security. The president has described the southwest border "a pipeline" for illegal drugs and on Thursday emphasized the importance of border security in addressing the country's drug overdose crisis.

Roughly 90 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States originates in Mexico and the majority of heroin seized by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is intercepted along the southern border. Mexican drug cartels are also responsible for a growing volume of fentanyl being trafficked across the southern border, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Congress and the White House are now deadlocked in a nearly three-week government shutdown fight over the issue of securing the border. The main source of contention is $5.7 billion in funding for a border wall that President Trump claims will stem the flow of illicit drugs across the border.

Sen. Ted Cruz agreed that a border wall is an essential part of border security. In conversations with Texas Border Patrol agents, he noted that "without fail" they tell him a wall would make a real difference by slowing down illegal traffic. "The key to apprehension is the time between detection and when you can have a Border Patrol agent there to apprehend them," Cruz said.

The Texas senator acknowledged that a wall is only one of the tools needed to stop the flow of drugs across the border. "Now a wall isn't the only solution," Cruz told Bolling. "You also need technology, you need infrared, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft and you need boots on the ground." Cruz said he believed the U.S. should triple the number of Customs and Border Protection personnel.

As part of the ongoing shutdown negotiations, President Trump has requested additional funding ($571 billion) for Border Patrol personnel and technology at ports of entry that would enable CBP to inspect 100 percent of the vehicle traffic from Mexico for drugs. Currently, many vehicles are not screened for drugs at border checkpoints.

Rep. Henry Cuellar opposes President Trump's planned border wall and argued it will not effectively address the opioid crisis. "If you're trying to stop hardcore drugs....the wall is not going to do the job," he said. "It's going to be what we do at the ports of entry—the right technology, the right personnel, the right infrastructure at the ports of entry. And that's the thing we need to focus on if we're trying to stop those drugs."

According to the DEA's 2018 Drug Threat Assessment, the majority of illicit drugs are trafficked through legal ports of entry. Traffickers smuggle drugs in private vehicles, hiding them in tires, the frame of the car or transport them in commercial tractor trailers, where narcotics are often disguised as legal goods. Drugs can also be swallowed or hidden on a smuggler's body.

Still, drug trafficking between ports of entry remains a significant problem. The DEA reported that remote and sparsely populated terrains between ports of entry are "prime targets for drug smugglers."

Even while Congress and the White House disagree on funding for a border wall, this year saw a significant bipartisan victory in addressing the opioid crisis. In 2018 Congress and the White House collaborated to pass the largest package of opioid legislation last year, the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act. Hurd noted that in addition to making resources available for opioid addiction treatment and prevention programs, the bill also created a counternarcotics strategy for the southwest border.

Laredo is the number one port of entry on the southern border for commercial trucks and merchandise, accounting for more than $200 billion worth of trade. Laredo is also a focal point of two major drug trafficking corridors, explained TJ Mayes. The I-35 corridor runs from the border all the way to North Dakota and the I-10 corridor which ends in Los Angeles. Laredo is an important participant in the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, which provides assistance and resources to at-risk areas in 49 states.

At the local level, Jesus Torres of the Laredo Police Department said that "better surveillance" is most needed to detect the drugs that cross the border primarily in cars, trucks, by air and across the Rio Grande River.

Last year, the city of Laredo had more than 1,200 arrests for drug-related charges. Torres said he is seeing all kinds of narcotics in his city. "Everything is coming across," Torres said. "Where there is a demand there is a supply."

While proud of the work being done by local, state and federal law enforcement, Torres said education and prevention programs operated by civic organizations are even more important in stopping the opioid addiction crisis.

Scott Olson of Pathway Healthcare explained that overcoming a heroin or opioid addiction is difficult, but recovery is possible for anyone, the trick is never to give up.

"Most people accept that the disease of addiction is a chronic disease," Olson explained. Most people will have to live with it for the rest of their lives. "It takes one time, one visit, one tab of Oxycontin to send you back into a state of despair," he warned. That is why he works with individuals to stay dedicated to their recovery and communicate openly with health care providers, dentists and others who may try to prescribe an opioid.

Sinclair's town hall series, "Our Voice, Our Future" is aimed at raising awareness and reducing the stigma of addiction while exploring solutions to the drug crisis and holding accountable those who bear responsibility.

In December, top officials in the Trump administration, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie joined Sinclair from Washington, D.C. to discuss the growing problem of fentanyl and helping veterans overcome the stigma of addiction. The hour-long town hall emphasized the dangers of opioids with the overarching message that "one pill can kill."

Meanwhile, legal and illegal opioids have impacted every demographic and virtually every community across the United States. In 2017 opioids were involved in 47,600 deaths, more than 67 percent of all documented drug overdose deaths.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is committed to fighting the crisis. Thursday's opioid town hall was streamed live on all of Sinclair's websites and it will be re-broadcasted on multiple Sinclair stations.



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