Opioids: A Dark Allure With Deep National Security Implications

Opioids: A Dark Allure With Deep National Security Implications
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The American opioid crisis is a slow burning rot with deep national security implications. The dark allure of opium--the strongest, most addictive, and now most accessible depressants ever known—erodes communities and incurs economic losses. The crisis, causing 63,600 deaths in 2016 and 52,000 in 2015, is bestowing quantifiable and devastating harm to children, friends, family and communities into the next generation.[i] Strained morgues and burgeoning orphanages are monuments to families eternally separated and communities at a loss for solutions. Healthcare costs compound losses of workforce productivity and tax flows. Unaddressed, these local tragedies will culminate in a reduction of national military readiness for years to come—even as China, the primary source of the dangerous opioid fentanyl rises to power parity with the United States.

Able-bodied volunteers underwrite military readiness. Even before the crisis, qualified or interested candidates are a slim minority. The U.S. Defense Department says, “71% of America’s 34 million 17-24 year-old population could not qualify medically for military service.”[ii] Less than 1% are actually interested, and only .5% of America’s population actually serve.[iii] Opioid-related deaths and related addictions are increasing slightly in the 17-24 year-old population, chipping away at this already narrow recruiting pool. [iv]  The future looks bleak.  America’s labor force, 25-44 year-olds, the age group most likely to be today’s parents of tomorrow’s recruits, are leading the stats in the most number of opioid-related deaths, most reported addictions, and greatest percentage increase in both categories each year since 2015.[v] Consider this devilish effect of opioid addiction on recruiting: A small business in northeast Rustbelt Ohio actually has a hiring problem—management is unable to find qualified workers who can pass the drug test.[vi] Recruiting stations nationwide may face the same issue in the coming decades as orphans in foster care struggle to achieve parody of stable upbringing, education, health and wellness of children raised in a family. While qualified volunteers guarantee the national security of the United States, it is backed by immense budgetary resources—both at risk.

A Center for Disease Control report estimates “the [U.S.] economic burden of prescription opioid overdose, abuse, and dependence…to be $78.5 billion each year.[vii] Nationally, opioid tragedies cost state and local governments more than $7 billion in law enforcement budgets, court cases and incarceration. In 2013, Medicare and Medicaid spent $2.8 billion on substance abuse treatment. Center for Disease Control data from 2001 to 2012 estimates in-patient admission costs increased $50.1 million per year for heroin and opioid addicts, and an increase in hospitalization costs of $700 million annually.[viii] A study by Regional Economic Modeling Inc. estimated opioid abuse reduced workforce productivity by $40 billion[ix], decreasing tax revenues even as the federal budget and national debt reach an all-time high. Any additional decrease in tax revenue is in direct competition with existing defense and mandatory health care spending. The outlook is dark, the prospects grim, but the U.S. can draw from recent history to see the potential national security risks of an entire country recently seduced by opiates.

America need only examine the roots of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” to garner the historical cautionary tale on a population succumbed to the dark allure. Behind China’s current rapidly rising economy and military modernization lay the Century of Humiliation: one hundred years marked by foreign occupations, civil wars, and the loss of national sovereignty.  Opium’s role in the downfall of the last imperial dynasty made its people destitute, subjugated to foreign will, serves as the impetus for the modern drive to make China great again.

In the mid-19th Century, opium sales reversed the trade-deficit between the Qing dynasty and the British by an astounding 300%.[x] The downturn of silver in Qing coffers stifled innovation and eroded military readiness. A dulled military-edge resulted in the loss of the first Opium war and a series of foreign occupations.[xi] Drug related corruption in the ruling class eroded governing effectiveness, and civil wars erupted. Opium addiction corrupted every level of Chinese society, and its downfall was a fate the population, once seduced, struggled for one hundred years to overcome.

The role Chinese-made fentanyl plays in today’s U.S. opioid crisis makes for bitter historical irony. Profiteers and smuggling elements within China and the U.S. assure Americans steady access to cheap narcotics, fentanyl, and heroin. U.S. law enforcement and drug control experts point to China as the primary source. However, the internet retail revolution exacerbates the opiate supply line, lacking any meaningful government intervention.[xii]

America’s citizens, residents, institutions and leaders must address this crippling epidemic spreading from sea to shining sea. This month, China celebrated the Spring Festival, its new year’s tradition.  China has already resolved to rise from its opiate-induced slumber and become a global superpower. In the U.S., New Year’s Day has come and gone with only the seeds of nationwide conversation. America must understand the dire impacts and resolve to reverse course, we the people will not have a hundred years to do so.

Ming Xu and Jonathan Sawtelle are U.S. Air Force officers. The views expressed are their own opinion and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.


[i] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/opioid-fentanyl-overdose-deaths-us-life-expectancy-drops-for-second-year/

[ii] http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-why-most-americans-cant-join-the-military-2015-9

[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/opinion/americans-and-their-military-drifting-apart.html

[iv] CDC.  https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html

[v] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm655051e1.htm

[vi] http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/29/us/ohio-factory-owner-cnntv/index.html

[vii] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/pdfs/mm6626a4.pdf

[viii] Douglas, J. Hsu et al. “Hospitalizations, costs, and outcomes associated with heroin and prescription opioid overdoses in the United States 2001-12”, Addiction, 112/9, September 2017, p1558.

[ix] http://www.remi.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Economic-Impacts-of-the-Opioid-Crisis-REMI-Webinar-11-9-2017.pdf

[x] Julia Lovell., The Opium War:  Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China, (The Overlook Press: New York, NY), 2011.

[xi] Julia Lovell., The Opium War:  Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China, (The Overlook Press: New York, NY), 2011.

[xii] Nathanial Popper, “Opioid Dealers Embrace the Dark Web to Send Deadly Drugs by Mail,” 10 June 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/10/business/dealbook/opioid-dark-web-drug-overdose.html

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