On Tuesday evening, Nov. 19th, 2019, a thirty year old Fairmont, West Virginia woman smoked heroin in her white, 2005 Suzuki Aerio. After using, she subsequently overdosed and was saved when she was found unconscious behind the wheel. Her three year old son was in the car with her the entire time. The woman was charged with felony child neglect creating risk of injury, according to the criminal complaint.
This incident is one of the many opioid related tragedies that have plagued the state of West Virginia for the past several years. Many times drug abuse results in serious legal consequence, including lengthy prison sentences and children being taken from their parents. Worse, many users die from taking opioids. Heroin, oxycodone and much stronger compounds such as fentanyl and carfentanil (traditionally used as an elephant tranquilizer) are causing deaths across the United States. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, West Virginia has the highest age-adjusted opioid overdose death rate in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that 47,600 people died in 2017 from opioid abuse nationwide, which is almost as many American soldiers killed during the entire Vietnam War. An even more common occurrence is that drug users waste their time, their money and their dignity, to repeat the exact same cycle, day after day, year after year. It becomes a prison without walls.
Where are the drugs coming from? Fentanyl is shipped within regular shipments coming from China and the Dominican Republic. Heroin often comes across the southern border or from south east Asia and Afghanistan, while oxycodone can come from “pill mills” within the United States. Pills meant for legitimate patients can be stolen during any part of the process of getting them to the end user, while shady pill production facilities can produce pills that mostly enter the black market. Prescriptions can be fraudulently placed by medical providers who break the law by falsely lowering the requirements to get the pills or by using fraudulent or fictitious patients who get the pills with the intent of reselling to someone else.
The Federal government has several tools at its disposal to combat opioid and other drug trafficking. Many agencies, from the Drug Enforcement Agency, to US Customs and Border Protection, to the Internal Revenue Service, combine their efforts, intelligence and expertise, to catch and convict drug traffickers and shut down their networks. The US agency responsible for Federal drug trafficking prosecutions, is the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Title 28 of US code, organizes the Federal Courts and DOJ that handle Federal drug cases, while Part II of Title 28, organizes the DOJ into the FBI, Attorney General, United States Attorneys, US Marshall Service, ATF, Independent Counsel and United States Trustees.
28 USC 541 requires the US President to appoint Attorneys for each judicial district, who prosecute crimes within their jurisdiction. The Attorney General can appoint Assistant US Attorneys and Special Attorneys, as needed and as requested, for prosecutions. For West Virginia, there is a Northern and Southern District, which by law each have their own Attorneys.
The Attorney General, the lead law enforcement officer in the United States, has several areas of focus where he or she can prioritize resources and prosecution. According to the DOJ, one of its top priorities is “Combating the Opioid Crisis”. The DOJ program regarding opioids is for “Prevention, Enforcement and Treatment”. As well, the DOJ runs the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) which brings together anti-drug efforts and is a key strategy to bring down drug trafficking organizations. On August 2nd, 2017, newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit to target opioid related health care fraud, which included the Southern District of West Virginia as one of the 10 districts selected for the program. Part of that program used data analytics to identify abuse and fraud. In September of that same year, Jeff Sessions also gave a speech focusing on combating opioids in West Virginia and one week later, funded regional drug courts with $59 million for anti-drug efforts.
A month later, the DOJ announced its first indictments ever against Chinese manufacturers of fentanyl, who had been producing and importing dangerous synthetic opioids that are often added to, or substituted for heroin. In November 2017, the DEA and DOJ announced they would classify fentanyl analogues on an emergency basis, the same way they schedule or rate regular fentanyl. This would allow them to more easily build and prosecute fentanyl cases against illegal importers and distributors. These additions and adjustments were allowed through the Federal Controlled Substances Act. Following that action, in December of the same year, AG Jeff Sessions announced a new position called, “Opioid Enforcement and Prevention Efforts Director”. Following with further action, in January 2018, the DEA analyzed records over 45 days to identify pharmacies and prescribers who over prescribed opioids. One month later, the DOJ launched a Prescription Interdiction & Litigation Task Force to place criminal and civil proceedings against opioid manufacturers who broke the law. In April 2018, the DOJ announced the first Dark Net opioid related prosecution, followed by the DEA sharing pain killer prescription information with 48 State Attorney Generals.
Guided by the DOJ, the DEA also released new opioid production limit rules. The Sessions led DOJ then followed with Operation Saigon Sunset, which resulted in the takedown of a major fentanyl ring that trafficked drugs from Detroit to West Virginia and which resulted in a 100 person indictment of the “Peterson Drug Trafficking Organization”. By the summer of 2018, shady, law-breaking opioid distributors, doctors, pain clinics and laboratories lost opioid licenses, faced DOJ criminal health care fraud indictments and civil proceedings. On July 11th, 2018, the DOJ announced quota limits on opioid production, depending on community abuse levels. On July 12th, 2018, Jeff Sessions announced the Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (SOS) which focused on targeting synthetic opioids (like fentanyl) by identifying international and domestic suppliers, their distribution networks and the areas most impacted by these drugs. The program identified the 10 counties in the country hardest hit by synthetic opioids by asking each United States Attorney’s office to identify their most drug-riddled county. Each investigation would start by going after local distributors and move the investigations to the suppliers. The program also supplied each assisted district with an Assistant US Attorney to assist in drug related prosecutions. The Northern and Southern districts of West Virginia were 2 of the 10 participating districts identified for this OCDETF program. In October 2018, the DOJ Criminal Division created an Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force (ARPO) that would focus on illegal opioid prescriptions throughout Appalachian states. In April 2019, 53 medical professionals were charged by the task force with criminal counts. From Michigan, to West Virginia to Texas, bad-acting drug distributors were shut down and arrests were made for networks diverting pills for recreational use throughout 2019 and 2020.
The DOJ has been working with Federal Agencies to target opioid abuse, diversion, illegal production and importation and has used federal resources to get resources into West Virginia to try and prevent situations like the one that occurred with the woman in Fairmont and her son. During his tenure as Attorney General, Jeff Sessions made opioid abuse a priority and attacked the issue by going after bad manufacturers, distributors, importers, prescribers and street sellers. Federal funds were provided to local law enforcement and courts to deal with the issue, while drug production limits were set and analytics were used by the DEA to study and investigate bad actors selling opioids who had Federal licenses. Civil proceedings were launched, while more tools were given to Federal law enforcement to go after regional or overseas trafficking networks. To date, Jeff Sessions has led the most aggressive and expansive front by Federal law enforcement against the illegal opioid trade. Certainly the opioid epidemic is still a major threat to the health and well being of the country. It will be important to see how under the new Administration, the Federal Government and Attorney General’s Office continue to monitor and address opioid abuse, production and trafficking, across the United States and its borders.