DEA St. Louis and federal, state, and local counterparts today announced 51 drug and weapons arrests aimed at the most violent heroin traffickers and criminal organizations in the St. Louis region. The 10-month effort was the first significant action of the St. Louis Heroin Initiative, a collection of various agencies working closely to coordinate and attack the heroin epidemic at multiple levels.
“Heroin has become an epidemic in the St. Louis metro area and DEA is attacking the criminals who prey on the weak and addicted with their violent drug trafficking,” said DEA St. Louis Special Agent in-Charge James P. Shroba. “When it comes to heroin traffickers in St. Louis, there is rarely if ever such a thing as a non-violent drug offender. Deadly weapons have become common with today’s heroin trafficker, as we have seen with these arrests and seizures, and the heroin-related violence in many parts of the St. Louis metro area. As with other parts of the country, the heroin epidemic must be addressed on multiple fronts. The role of DEA and our partners is to continue to attack the most violent and significant drug trafficking networks, street gangs, and individuals. With the success of this ongoing initiative, we hope to add many more partners to this critical heroin initiative to include not just law enforcement, but educators, treatment providers, health departments and other local entities.”
This 50-plus arrest operation culminated with warrants executed yesterday and today throughout the region. Seizures included 28 weapons and over 34,000 dosage units of heroin. In addition to possession and trafficking charges, targets were also charged with various weapons violations and several were charged with involuntary manslaughter as a result of heroin overdose deaths. Seized weapons included 12 gauge shotguns, 9mm glocks, and Colt .40 guns.
According to the St. Charles County Medical Examiner, 30 individuals died in heroin-related overdoses last year in the county and 172 have died since 2005. Heroin overdose deaths are regularly reported throughout the St. Louis region.
Heroin use and availability are on the rise across the country and causing more overdose deaths than at any time in the last decade. Although fewer people presently use heroin than other illicit drugs, the heroin user population is growing at a faster rate than any other drug of abuse, almost doubling between 2007 and 2013-from 161,000 to 289,000-according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). According to the Centers for Disease Control, deaths involving heroin more than tripled between 2007 (2,402) and 2013 (8,260).
According to National Seizure System data, from 2010 through 2014, heroin seizures in the U.S. rose 81 percent, from 2,763 kilograms to 5,014 kilograms. During that same period, the average size of a heroin seizure more than doubled, from 0.86 kilograms to 1.74 kilograms. The higher demand for heroin is partly driven by an increase in controlled prescription drug (CPD) abuse over the past decade.
Many prescription drug users became addicted to opioid medications originally prescribed for a legitimate medical purpose. A recent SAMHSA study found that four out of five recent new heroin users had previously abused prescription pain relievers. The reasons an individual shifts from one opiate to another vary, but today’s heroin is higher in purity, less expensive, and often easier to obtain than illegal prescription drugs. Higher purity allows heroin to be smoked or snorted, thereby avoiding the stigmas associated with injection. Heroin users today tend to be younger, more affluent, and more ethnically and geographically diverse than ever before, creating even more challenges for law enforcement, treatment professionals, and educators.
In the last two years, DEA has seen a significant resurgence in fentanyl-related seizures. According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS), state and local labs reported 3,344 fentanyl submissions in 2014, up from 942 in 2013. In addition, DEA has identified 15 other fentanyl-related compounds.
Fentanyl is a Schedule II narcotic used as an analgesic and anesthetic. It is the most potent opioid available for use in medical treatment – 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is potentially lethal, even at very low levels. Ingestion of small doses as small as 0.25 mg can be fatal. Its euphoric effects are indistinguishable from morphine or heroin.
DEA has also issued warnings to law enforcement as fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin and accidental inhalation of airborne powder can also occur. DEA is concerned about law enforcement coming in contact with fentanyl on the streets during the course of enforcement, such as a buy-walk, or buy-bust operation.
Fentanyl cases in 2014 have been significant, particularly in the northeast and in California, including one 12 kilogram seizure. The fentanyl from these seizures originated from Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
Globally, fentanyl abuse has increased the past two years in Russia, Ukraine, Sweden and Denmark. Mexican authorities have seizure fentanyl labs there, and intelligence has indicated that the precursor chemicals came from companies in Mexico, Germany, Japan, and China.
Historically, this is not the first time fentanyl has posed such a threat to public health and safety. Between 2005 and 2007, over 1,000 U.S. deaths were attributed to fentanyl – many of which occurred in Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The source of that fentanyl was traced to a single lab in Mexico. When that lab was identified and dismantled, the surge ended.
Fentanyl continues to be a significant problem in the St. Louis metro area and many heroin seizures include this dangerous and deadly drug as well. The St. Louis Regional Heroin Initiative consists of DEA, U.S. Marshals, ATF, The United States Attorneys Office, St. Charles County Prosecutors Office, St. Charles County Cyber Crime Task Force, St. Charles County Sheriff’s, St. Charles County Police, St. Charles City Police, Wentzville Police, Lake St. Louis Police, St. Peters Police, St. Louis County Police, St. Louis Metropolitan Police, St. Ann Police, O’Fallon, MO Police, the Medical Examiner’s Office of St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin Counties, and the Cottleville Police.