Place settings at the roundtable held last Friday at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City displayed the names and insignias of about a dozen officials.
Some had ventured from Washington D.C., others from throughout the Panhandle, and all had convened with a singular goal — to discuss their next steps in combating what they say is a growing opioid problem in the Florida Panhandle.
The event, hosted by U.S. Representative Neal Dunn, who represents both Franklin and Gulf counties, featured input from seven local sheriffs, though neither Franklin County’s A.J. Smith nor Gulf County’s Mike Harrison were in attendance this time around.
It was the second discussion of its kind hosted by the congressman in recent years. Sheriffs, including Harrison, from throughout the district met with Dunn in August of 2022 along similar lines.
This time around, the discussion included invited guest speaker Chad Wolf, former secretary of the United States Department of Homeland Security, who traveled down to Bay County to gain what he said was necessary insight into how national policies impact those working in American communities.
“Any time I get the opportunity to interact with folks outside of the national level, particularly at the local level, I jump at that chance,” Wolf said in an interview ahead of the roundtable.
“… Every community today is a border community. Whether it’s the human trafficking, or the illegal narcotics or the illegal contraband that comes across that border, it does not stay in South Texas or southern Arizona or California. It goes to every community across the country.”
Fentanyl was the leading cause of drug-caused deaths in the state in 2021, according to the the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Medical Examiners Commission, causing 5,791 deaths. Fentanyl analogs caused another 1,152 deaths. The data for 2022 has not yet been released.
Fentanyl-related deaths in 2021 were up seven percent from the year prior.
According to the U.S. Department of State, illicit fentanyl production has “soared” in Mexico, and Mexico is a destination country for “fentanyl precursors originating mainly from the People’s Republic of China.”
Since leaving the Department of Homeland Security in January 2021, Wolf has been working as an advocate in Washington D.C. for his areas of political concern. He founded the America First Policy Institute, a think tank and research institute prioritizing “America first” policies.
Wolf has been outspoken about his stance on the United States’ current immigration policy, which he ties closely to the spread of fentanyl within the country. He was quoted criticizing the Biden administration’s deployment of thousands of troops to the border with Mexico earlier this month, calling the move “smoke and mirrors” without also implementing stricter policies on immigration.
Dunn, a vocal critic of the Biden administration’s immigration policies, recently introduced a House resolution aiming to have fentanyl declared a weapon of mass destruction, which he referenced in his opening statements at the roundtable.
“I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it is actually a legal designation that frees up additional resources for these law enforcement agencies,” said Dunn.
Both Dunn and Wolf said that while they hold strong opinions in the area of Friday’s discussion, the purpose of the roundtable was to inform those opinions and gain perspective from local law enforcement.
“The congressman has some ideas, and I have some ideas, but more importantly we really want to hear from the sheriffs. They’re the ones on the ground who have to battle this every single day,” said Wolf. “What would make their lives easier?”