While Donald Trump criticizes and argues with the United Nations, Mexico, and China over embassies, walls and trade deals, his administration is relying upon them as he attempts to combat the opioid epidemic.
The president declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency last year, with most recent government estimates suggesting the more than 64,000 fatal overdoses in 2016 outnumber the total number of American deaths in the Vietnam war.
Richard Baum, acting director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Guardian that the US had requested the UN help declare fentanyl – an opioid at the heart of the crisis in the US – illegal in both the US and China.
The US claims fentanyl manufactured in China – available for purchase online or imported into the US via established trafficking routes – contributes to the epidemic currently facing the country. A UN effort to outlaw the drug would empower international law enforcement to stem the flow across borders.
“It creates a better environment if [fentanyl] is illegal in the US and it’s illegal in China,” said Baum. “So we’re cooperating. We are trading information about what’s happening. They are banning substances [and] we are. We’re working together at the UN.”
The importance of the UN in coordinating international cooperation on an American drug problem underlines the complex relationship the Trump administration has with the world body – as well as countries it needs to partner with to face down critical domestic issues.
Trump is a strong critic of the UN, saying after his 2016 election that it was “just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time”. He also slammed the general assembly’s rebuke of his plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last year.
But Baum, Trump’s top adviser on drug control issues, said global cooperation was key to addressing the US opioid epidemic and must be maintained.
“When the US asked China for help on some of these cases, they have told us that it’s much better for them if [a drug] is something that is illegal in China,” he said. “I always want more cooperation, faster action, but when we put in requests and we’ve documented things that are sourced from China, they’re acting on it.”
Baum said Mexican drug cartels were also importing fentanyl from China and mixing it with heroin trafficked into the US. Fentanyl is also imported to Mexicofrom China, repackaged as pills, and shipped into the US.
“It is the same organizations, the Mexican trafficking organizations, that are moving a lot of product into the US containing fentanyl,” Baum said.
“We have a really positive, collaborative relationship with Mexico. We’re working very closely with them. We have our shared border, and that doesn’t change. The cartels based in Mexico are a hugely difficult and complicated problem and we need to continue to work together with our Mexican colleagues in addressing that problem.”
Yet the necessity of a positive relationship with Mexico on drug control is contradicted by Trump’s continuing public statements about his country’s southern neighbor. A campaign declaration that Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists” and demands for Mexico to pay for a border wall contributed to a low in relations when Mexican President Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto cancelled a 2017 state visit. Immigration and trade issues are also contentious.
Baum, however, said a longstanding relationship between law enforcement and on-the-ground diplomatic efforts by the US embassy in Mexico City overcome top-level tension between the countries.
“We understand the blood and treasure the Mexican government has spent trying to address the drug cartels,” Baum said. “We understand it’s an enormous problem and challenge for Mexico. They are working very hard. They’ve lost a lot of good people trying to address the problem. It’s a relationship based on professional law enforcement people working together to address a shared problem.”
Trump’s 2016 national health emergency declaration was criticized for freeing up just $57,000 in federal funds but Baum said the president had proposed a $28.7bn overall federal drug budget – including $10.8bn for drug treatment programs for 2018.
“We’re doing more against drugs than we ever have before but it’s not enough,” Baum said.