‘We’re in a fight for our lives’


(Editors note: This is the second in a series of articles about the fentanyl crisis that has killed thousands of people in Oklahoma and across the nation.)

By John Dobberstein, Editor

That street drugs are making their way from Mexico into Oklahoma is nothing new, as authorities have been dismantling organizations for decades trafficking cocaine, heroin, meth and marijuana.

The story with fentanyl is similar, but with a twist: the synthetic opioid typically begins as a powder made in China and shipped to “superlabs” in Mexico for processing. The illicit operations are supported by unregistered pill presses, stamps and dies that are shipped via mail.

Often the powder is cut and diluted for smuggling or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills for smuggling across the border to the U.S.

In Canada, powder fentanyl is processed and mixed with heroin and sold as heroin or pressed into pills and sold. Some fentanyl products are smuggled from Canada into the U.S. for sale, albeit on a small scale.

Authorities have said China has not only been cooperating with Mexico on drug production but also laundering money and helping to them transport illicit drugs.

With marijuana restrictions being eased in many states, some authorities believe cartels are turning to fentanyl to shore up profits, especially since fentanyl is relatively cheap to make.

Seizures increasing

Federal law enforcement officials have said there are ongoing efforts to eliminate organizations that are mass-producing fake pills containing fentanyl that are sold on the darknet and through dealers openly operating on social media sites.

Anne Milgram, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator (DEA), said fake pills are being mass-produced by the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels in Mexico and are designed to look identical to real prescription medications, including OxyContin, Percocet and Xanax.

In 2021, the DEA seized more than 20.4 million fake prescription pills. Earlier this year, the DEA conducted a nationwide operational “surge” to target the trafficking of fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills and, in just over 3 months, seized 10.2 million fake pills in all 50 states.

OBN seizures accelerating

The story is no different in Oklahoma. Donnie Anderson, director of Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN), said investigations clearly show a thriving drug pipeline from Mexico to the Southwestern U.S.

Agents have seen bulk fentanyl in powder form, pressed into counterfeit M-30 pills, sleeping pills or purple tablets, or in other drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

In Oklahoma, OBN seizures have increased 418% since 2018, with 94.9 pounds taken as of this summer. Lab submittal cases have grown from an average of 30 from 2017-19 to 239 in 2021, a 154% increase.

Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have also skyrocketed, from 54 in 2018 to 137 in 2020 and 299 in 2021.

Masked killer

In 2021, OBN recovered 18 pounds of raw fentanyl powder in seizures. First the first 6 months of 2022 it was 95 pounds, a 418% increase. OBN lab submittal cases have increased from 95 in 2020, to 239 in 2021, 154% increase. Anderson described those as “phenomenal, unbelievable numbers.

“We’ve made great strides in addressing the opioid epidemic from the pharma side. Ten years ago would see people parked at doctor’s office 3 hours before the doctor got there waiting in line to get their oxycontin,” Anderson said.

Drug overdoses from fentanyl are often connect to people whose drug of choice is opioids, but not always, he notes, as fentanyl pills are coming across the border that look like legitimate medication.

“Nobody is doing this thinking they’re going to die,” Anderson said.

More control over people and products coming over the Mexican border would play a large part in slowing the flow of fentanyl, Anderson said.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Anderson said, undercover agents had a much harder time getting their hands on opioids. A year later, he said, and the pipeline has opened back up.

Only 7% of OBN’s budget comes from tax dollars, so interdiction has been a challenge. The number of agents working cases with OBN has doubled in the last 2 years. “We cannot keep up with it. We are well-funded but not well appropriated,” Anderson said.

Deadly rainbow

A recent drug bust in Arizona helped illustrate how fentanyl is getting to the streets of the Tulsa metro area.

K9 deputies for the Yavapai County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Office conducted a vehicle traffic stop northbound on Interstate 17 in Cordes Lakes, Ariz. In November and found 53 pounds of methamphetamine, 36 pounds of multicolored M30 fentanyl pills and 5 kilograms of cocaine in the car.

When deputies approached the vehicle, the driver, Ryan Ellman, 33, of Tulsa, Okla., “was showing obvious physical signs of nervousness and when asked about his erratic driving, he stated that he “was falling asleep,” deputies said.

Deputies deployed their K9 Max who alerted to the odor of narcotics. A probable-cause search found 2 large duffel bags in the trunk containing the narcotics.

Personal use heroin, meth, cocaine, drug paraphernalia and 3 firearms were also found in the front and back seat of the vehicle.

Authorities said their investigation of the incident identified a potential drug stash house in the Phoenix area, where a warrant search found an additional 22 pounds of cocaine.

Ellman was arrested and booked into the Yavapai County jail for 2 counts of transportation of a narcotic drug for sale, transportation of dangerous drugs for sale, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

California has also turned into a hub for fentanyl trafficking because of its proximity to the Mexican border.

Last month, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging a Cerritos, Calif. man with heading an organization that obtained bulk fentanyl, operated labs in Inglewood and Compton that used high-speed pill presses to create fake pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine and sold millions of pills to thousands of customers on the darknet.

Christopher Hampton, 36, was named in an 11-count indictment that charges him with various narcotics and weapons offenses that could result in a sentence of life in federal prison.

Hampton – who was active on at least nine darknet marketplaces, where he typically used the moniker “Narco710” – was arrested on Nov. 2, at which time agents with the FBI, DEA, HSI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with U.S. Postal Inspectors, executed search warrants.

Those searches led to the discovery and seizure of 450 pounds of suspected narcotics; six pill press machines, some of which were capable of producing thousands of pills per hour; and illegal firearms that included assault rifles and a suspected machine gun.

Agents also recovered from Hampton’s residence more than 20,000 multi-colored pills containing fentanyl – so-called “skittles” manufactured to resemble oxycodone pills.

Fighting the ‘darknet’

The indictment alleges that Hampton sold nearly $2 million worth of narcotics on just two darknet marketplaces that he and his co-conspirators controlled.

In the Southern California region other programs are targeting street-level dealers who sell products that lead to fatal fentanyl poisonings, as well as those trafficking wholesale quantities of bulk fentanyl and counterfeit pharmaceutical pills produced by drug cartels.

The investigation into Hampton was conducted by the FBI-led Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement Team (J-CODE) and the DEA HIDTA Tactical Diversion Squad.

J-CODE targets darknet vendors by using sophisticated, high-tech techniques to identify drug traffickers who wrongly believe the dark web allows them to engage in criminal conduct with anonymity.

The FBI and partners operate the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement Team (J-CODE) to disrupt and dismantle illicit marketplaces facilitating the distribution of fentanyl and other opioids on the Darknet.

Since its inception, J-CODE efforts have led to the arrests over 300 darknet drug traffickers and the seizure of $42 million and 800 kilograms of narcotics, as well as 145 firearms.

Another facet of the response to the fentanyl epidemic is the ongoing efforts of the Overdose Justice Task Force, a DEA-led project designed to investigate fatal fentanyl poisonings and identify the dealer who sold the drugs that caused the death.

Under the Overdose Justice program for the DEA’s Los Angeles Field Division, DEA agents collaborate with local law enforcement to analyze evidence to determine if there are circumstances that might lead to a federal criminal prosecution, and, if so, target the drug trafficker.

Since the project’s launch about four years ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed charges against 51 defendants who allegedly sold drugs that resulted in a fatal poisoning. Nearly all of these cases involve fentanyl, and some of the cases involve multiple deaths, including two pending cases filed earlier this year in Santa Ana.

During 2022, law enforcement officials have seized massive shipments of both bulk fentanyl and fentanyl-laced fake pills. In July, in an operation in Inglewood, authorities seized a shipment of nearly 1 million fake pills containing fentanyl. This matter is the subject of an ongoing investigation.

In late October, after several months of discussing a potential transaction involving 2 million fentanyl-laced pills, DEA agents working with investigators from the Hawthorne Police Department, conducted an operation in which they seized more than 800,000 fake pills containing fentanyl.

“The fentanyl epidemic is a crisis that demands our full attention,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said. “This poison is targeting our young people, causing untold damage to families, neighborhoods, and our entire nation. We are fighting back. We have dramatically ramped up our efforts to stem the flow of narcotics, to vigorously prosecute those directly responsible for peddling this poison, and to respond in innovative ways to improve public safety and educate the public.”

‘Quit calling it a war’

Back in Oklahoma, where treatment programs are badly needed, treatment admissions have actually been falling, from a high of 3,367 in 2017 to 2,372 in 2021.

Overall fatal drug overdoses have also spiked in Oklahoma, from 795 in 2017 to 1,005 in 2021. That is nearly double the 514 drug overdose fatalities reports in 2005.

Last year, methamphetamine was the top abuse drug leading to fatal overdoses with 603 deaths, followed by fentanyl with 253. Cocaine was the next higher at 63, followed by heroin, alprazolam, hydrocodone and methadone.

Nester said BAPD has a narcotics unit dedicated to working medium- and larger-size drug operations, but possession of fentanyl is merely a misdemeanor now due to changes in state law, and arrests are not compounding – which doesn’t change a person’s behavior. All they must do is show up in court.

“It’s not that the officers are being lazy, it’s that the prosecutors have a max on what they can do, and with sentencing there is a max on what you can do,” Nester said. “We’re trying to stop who we can and get people into services and into the court system on the dealer end.”

Anderson said if no enforcement was being done at all, the epidemic would be even worse. He is skeptical of the move to decriminalize many drug laws.

“I know a small minority of people say the war on drugs has been going for years and it’s not working. But we’re not at war. We’re not dropping bombs on people, so quit calling it a war. We’re in a fight for our lives,” Anderson said.

But he added, “I don’t want to live in a society where we decriminalize everything. It’s not going to make our society better.”

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