First of three parts
The surge of powerful opioids and the record number of deadly overdoses are forcing law enforcement to change the way they do their jobs, adding social work and education to their traditional role of crime-fighting as they scramble to combat the threat.
Officers trained to kick down doors are now knocking on them, offering addicts a ride to rehab. Agencies accustomed to stopping drug distribution are handing out naloxone, an emergency drug that reverses overdoses. Once casting a suspicious eye on addicts, officers are now welcoming them with open arms when they arrive to trade drugs for treatment.
“We can’t be cowboys trying to arrest our way out of this problem,” said Kevin Eaton, the resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
As the opioid crisis rages across the country, local and federal authorities have become overwhelmed by an epidemic that claimed almost 48,000 lives last year. Many of the deaths have been linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.
To target the flow of heroin and fentanyl, the DEA created six specialized task forces to operate in opioid hot spots across the country. Local and state law enforcement officers have joined the task force, which is operating in New Bedford; Charleston, West Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Cincinnati; Cleveland; and Long Island, New York.
New Bedford has been hit particularly hard. The city’s heroin problem goes back to the days when fishing was its only industry. Workers would turn to the drug to help cope with the pain, injuries and loneliness of a life at sea.
Its location in the southeastern part of the state brought distributors to its doorstep. Dealers have easy access to a large swath of customers in Boston and Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; New Hampshire; and New York City, a straight shot down Interstate 95.
“It has diminished the city’s overall quality of life,” said Mayor Jon F. Mitchell. “Having people addicted means they haven’t been as productive in the workforce. The more people who are addicted, the more people who are committing property crimes like breaking into cars; and schoolchildren in our city come from parents who are substance abusers. It all takes a toll. It is not as bad here as other places but still very challenging.”
Fentanyl on the rise
As the DEA’s task forces sought to clamp down on the flow of heroin, the rise of fentanyl created a new challenge. Fentanyl-linked deaths jumped more than 400 percent from 2014 to 2017 and accounted for nearly the entire increase in overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Fentanyl has been flowing into the United States through two illicit pipelines. Mexican cartels are bringing it into the U.S. through the nation’s porous border along traditional drug trafficking routes. Meanwhile, Chinese laboratories are shipping more than 1 million packages a day to the U.S. through the Postal Service, which Congress is trying to stop with legislation signed by President Trump. China last month promised to clamp down on fentanyl production and shipments.
“No one is making fentanyl in downtown New Bedford,” said Taunton, Massachusetts, Police Chief Ed Walsh.
The New Bedford task force began trying traditional methods to take down the cartels. It would identify the most significant trafficker in the area and investigate to see how high up the cartel’s ladder they could reach before handing off the case to a federal prosecutor.
But the DEA and local law enforcement are learning that the traditional approach isn’t enough.
“If you can cripple an organization, someone else might emerge,” Mr. Eaton said. “If someone can make money off it, they will.”
Developed in 1959 as anesthesia, fentanyl didn’t start seeping into the illicit drug supply until roughly 2014. Mexican cartels began lacing heroin with fentanyl, and overdose deaths suddenly grew from a trickle to an explosion. Fentanyl-related deaths jumped 50 percent in 28 states from 2010 to 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
For the user, fentanyl creates a cheaper, more addictive high. For the dealer, it is cheaper and easier to make, creates repeat customers and yields more cash.
Drug cartels’ profit margin on a kilo of heroin is about $5,000. That jumps to about $50,000 for a kilo of heroin cut with fentanyl, Mr. Eaton said. He estimates that the number of fentanyl seizures over the past year has increased fivefold.
“When we arrived, we were seizing a lot of heroin mixed with fentanyl. Now it’s just fentanyl,” said Mark Skeffington, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s New England field division.
Fentanyl is becoming so popular that it is increasingly showing up in cocaine and synthetic marijuana, or K2. In 2012, 180 cocaine overdose deaths involved fentanyl or another synthetic opioid, according to the CDC. By 2016, that number had risen to nearly 4,200.
“We are not turning the tide in the opioid crisis because we are now seeing fentanyl cut with marijuana and cocaine,” Chief Walsh said. “We are not shocked anymore because this is the new normal.”
Cops as social workers
On an especially warm Tuesday afternoon in late May, DEA agents observed three people shooting heroin in a parking lot along the old industrial city’s surprisingly blue bay. The agents called local police to pick them up, but officers were too busy responding to a drug-related shooting across town.
“If we weren’t doing the work we are doing, imagine how bad it would be,” Mr. Skeffington said. “If we weren’t taking fentanyl off the streets, it would be chaos.”
The surge in drug use has forced law enforcement to shift its tactics to become more proactive than reactive.
“You are seeing a paradigm shift,” said Christopher Delmonte, police chief for Bridgewater, Massachusetts. “This is one of those times where our profession has changed. I’ve been in law enforcement for a long time, and I’ve only seen two other paradigm shifts like this. The first was after the Rodney King riots, and the second was after 9/11.”
The opioid crisis has forced law enforcement to assume unfamiliar roles as drug counselors and social workers. Across the country, they are administering needle exchange programs, handing out naloxone, and visiting overdose survivors and encouraging them to enter rehab.
“I never thought I’d see the day when my officers are distributing drugs in a controlled way,” Chief Delmonte said.
Chief Walsh said his officers made about 1,800 home visits to overdose victims and recovering addicts last year. Some arrive in unmarked cars to help addicts avoid the stigma of police visits.
The visits can be discouraging because health care privacy laws prevent officers from enlisting family members to help addicts seek or maintain recovery. Nonetheless, they soldier on.
“It doesn’t matter if getting someone to treatment is not our responsibility; we have to do it,” Chief Walsh said.
Joanne Peterson, founder and executive director of Learn to Cope, a Taunton-based addiction support network, agreed that the police are filling an unmet need.
“The burden is definitely falling on law enforcement,” she said. “If there were more resources for long-term treatment, there would be less people on the streets. But now people are in treatment for three or four days and right back on the street again and overdosing. The police are seeing the same people over and over.”
Karrin, a recovering addict who goes on overdose follow-up rides with the New Bedford police and didn’t want her last name used, agreed.
“I’ve been to the houses of people who are doing amazingly well a year later but may not have been here now had we not knocked on the door and said, ‘Someone cares about you.’ “
Some departments are seeing success. Scott Allen, police chief of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, said 109 overdose victims went into treatment last year as a result of his visits.
Frustration with courts
Law enforcement officials say the courts have been a source of frustration. They accuse judges of issuing light sentences for dealers and refusing to hold suspects on bail.
A Peabody, Massachusetts, man pleaded guilty in May to charges of drug possession with intent to distribute after he was found with more than half an ounce of heroin hidden in a secret compartment of his car. A local judge said the man wouldn’t have to serve time because he was trying to support his family.
“This was not a drug addict who was dealing to fund his own addiction,” said Salem Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley, “but rather a person who made some terrible judgments and decisions but made them for what he thought was in the best interest of his family.”
Police and Thomas M. Quinn, III district attorney of Bristol County, Massachusetts, said the decision was a slap in the face to law enforcement and those who have been torn apart by addiction.
“I think for a judge to be saying that is not appropriate,” Mr. Quinn said. “It is inflammatory to law enforcement and victims’ families — people who are suffering and paid the price for drug addiction.”
That wasn’t Judge Feeley’s most controversial decision. In April, he reduced the bail for John Williams, who stands accused of killing a sheriff’s deputy in Maine.
In March, Mr. Williams was arrested in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on a host of drug and firearms charges. His bail was set at $10,000 cash, but Judge Feeley reduced the amount to a $5,000 bond. Mr. Williams was easily able to post the new cost for his release.
Some in Massachusetts, including local lawmakers, are demanding Judge Feeley’s removal.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts court system declined to comment.
DEA agents said they aren’t seeing lax bail recommendations at the federal level. They said bail is typically denied in fentanyl cases.
The reason for the discrepancy, Mr. Quinn said, is because judges in Massachusetts have more discretion than courts in the federal system, where defendants are subject to mandatory minimum requirements.
Mr. Quinn said he is pushing for tougher bail in Massachusetts.
“Most of these defendants should be in custody because of the lethality of what they are doing,” he said.
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