Jelly Roll, the face-tattooed former drug dealer turned rapper who has rocketed to stardom as a country musician singing plaintively about his struggles with addiction, came to a Senate hearing room Thursday morning hoping for a savior.
“Every concert I perform, I witness the heartbreaking impact of fentanyl. I see fans grappling with this tragedy. … They seek solace in music and hope that their experiences won’t befall others,” Jason “Jelly Roll” DeFord testified before the Senate Banking Committee. “These people crave reassurance that their elected officials actually care more about human life than they do about ideology and partisanship.”
DeFord’s chart-making singles “Need a Favor” and “Son of a Sinner” helped propel him to a Country Music Association Award last year and a nomination for best new artist at next month’s Grammys.
His trip to Capitol Hill came in support of a bipartisan bill that would help law enforcement go after money laundering operations that underpin international opioid trafficking. Driven by the potency and ubiquity of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, drug deaths have exploded in recent years, topping more than 100,000 in 2022.
Introduced by Senate Banking Chairman Sherrod Brown and ranking member Tim Scott, the bill was approved in committee unanimously and now has 67 co-sponsors. It is aimed at disrupting the fentanyl trade by targeting operations based in China that support the drug cartels.
“The U.S. law enforcement community and the U.S. financial system needed significant new authority, guidance, and resources to understand and combat the threat,” Christopher Urben, a former assistant special agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in his written testimony.
Urben, now a managing director at Nardello & Co., described how Chinese money launderers collect the proceeds of drug deals in America, exchange those dollars to Chinese nationals looking to spend or invest in the U.S. (e.g., buy luxury goods, pay college tuition or purchase real estate) and then use the exchanged funds to buy Chinese goods, which they then ship to Mexico. According to Urben, this complex system operates more efficiently than other money laundering options, fueling the fentanyl trade.
While Urben testified on the proposal’s technical elements — like how it would allow the Treasury Department to quickly surveil the financial transactions and accounts used by Chinese money launderers, and tweak how banks file suspicious activity reports potentially linked to fentanyl trafficking — DeFord was there to do what he does best: appeal to his audience’s emotions.
“It’s important to note before I start that, in these five minutes I’ll be speaking, somebody in the United States will die of a drug overdose,” DeFord said in his opening remarks. “And it is almost a 72 percent chance that during those five minutes, it will be fentanyl-related.”
The daily total for fentanyl deaths is around what a 737 aircraft can carry, he said. “Could you imagine the national media attention it would get if they were reporting that a plane was crashing every single day and killing 190 people? But because it’s 190 drug addicts, we don’t feel that way. Because America has been known to bully and shame drug addicts instead of dealing and trying to understand what the actual root of the problem is.”
DeFord called drug addiction “a mental health problem,” and in earlier interviews he has repeatedly credited therapy and the support of his wife for helping him overcome his own cocaine use.
As DeFord spoke on behalf of the often-vilified addicts, the Fraternal Order of Police’s national president, Patrick Yoes, provided the local cop’s perspective on the front lines of the fentanyl crisis. “We work to stem the flow of fentanyl in our communities, to capture and punish those who deal with drugs to save the lives of those who overdose,” Yoes said. “And when tragedy strikes, we deliver the news to the families of their loved one that was killed by this poison.”
All of the witnesses emphasized that the banking bill was a good start but not enough. DeFord said his past criminal convictions had prevented him from voting, so “I have never paid attention to a political race in my life.” But he asked lawmakers to work to stanch the root causes of addiction.
“If we don’t talk to the other side of Capitol Hill and stop the demand, we’re gonna spend our time in the mud,” DeFord said. “Y’all are taking the first step, but I encourage you to take it outside of this room, and you take it to your colleagues and your constituents, and you give them the most that you can.”
Urben focused on the role the encrypted messaging app WeChat plays in Chinese money laundering, calling for legislation or diplomatic negotiations to empower law enforcement to tap those communications. Yoes testified on the need to provide more police with naloxone, a drug that can block the effect of opioids and stop overdoses.
Brown and Scott all but admitted they invited DeFord to speak in order to gin up attention and pressure the House into acting. “I’m guessing most of you didn’t have ‘Jelly Roll testifies at Senate Banking Committee’ on your ’24 bingo card,” the Ohio Democrat said.
Scott echoed that cross-Capitol chiding. “Our friends on the other side of the Capitol, because of the shenanigans at the end of last year, didn’t get the bill included in legislation that would have made this law already,” the South Carolina Republican said. He was alluding to the bill text’s inclusion in the Senate version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, but not December’s final House-Senate product. “It is incredibly unfortunate that playing politics is still a game played in Washington, especially on something so important.”
While DeFord said he’d “attended more funerals than I care to share” for “uncles, friends, cousins, normal people” who died of opioid overdoses, he wasn’t the only person in the hearing room from the poorer outskirts of Nashville familiar with such tragedies. Noting that he grew up “in a trailer park on Richards Road” around the corner from DeFord’s childhood home, Sen. Thom Tillis shared how drugs impacted his own life. “I also had friends who got convicted for drug trafficking, and had one commit suicide after substance abuse really took [over] his life,” the North Carolina Republican said.