Fentanyl epidemic, fallout continues to permeate all aspects of Arizona life
By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press
The fentanyl epidemic rages on.
On the front lines here in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas are the men and women of law enforcement agencies, including the Phoenix Police Department, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
With millions of fentanyl pills seized, a proliferation of overdoses across the nation and an evolving legal landscape, top law enforcement officials from across the state gathered Thursday, Jan. 25, at the Arizona Biltmore Resort to educate local leaders on the travails of fighting a complex ill of society.
They came at the invitation of the Phoenix Police Foundation and journalist Mike Broomhead served as moderator for the 60-minute discussion on the ongoing fentanyl epidemic.
“It has changed the landscape across this country,” said Michael Sullivan, Phoenix chief of police, during the moderated discussion. “It has gone from being a small problem to being a massive problem.”
Chief Sullivan points out his officers are seizing large amounts of fentanyl pills routinely.
“That is an unbelievable number,” he said of the recent seizure of 525,000 pills, which was part of a joint operation between the Tempe and Phoenix police departments.
In 2022, through the One Pill Can Kill initiative, the DEA here in Arizona and its law enforcement partners seized more than 10.2 million fentanyl pills and approximately 980 pounds of fentanyl powder during the period of May 23 through Sept. 8, 2022.
“On the front line as we race to save lives, DEA Arizona continues to seize historic amounts of deadly fentanyl,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Cheri Oz at the time of the announcement. “It is terrifying that the drug cartels are mimicking candy to make fentanyl appear harmless. We need your help spreading the word about the dangers of fentanyl. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Today, Chief Sullivan says many who call the city of Phoenix home have been touched by the fentanyl epidemic.
“We feel the impacts as we drive through this city,” he said. “It poses a lot of challenges for law enforcement. We are down 500 officers — our drug enforcement department is half the size it was just a few years ago.”
Law enforcement officials report fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin. Just two milligrams of fentanyl, or the amount that could fit on the tip of a pencil, is considered a potentially lethal dose.
“We have to force multiply,” Chief Sullivan said pointing out the vital partnerships between different levels of law enforcement. “We are leveling up our partnerships and sharing information we have because we have to be collaborative.”
Chief Sullivan explains that almost exclusively drug arrests surround fentanyl use and says never before has he seen the cost of an illicit drug drop as it grows in prevalence — and skyrocketing death rate associated with it.
“It is almost entirely fentanyl,” he said of drug arrests of recent memory. “As a fentanyl user they can maintain that high for $20. The impact is unbelievable — when I got here, and I saw the seizures, I was just blown away.”
Fentanyl: One pill can kill
Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell pointed out to those who attended the Leadership in Law Enforcement event overdose deaths associated with fentanyl has risen by a staggering 5,000%.
“We are not just prosecuting, we are participating in education outreach,” she said of efforts like this one with Equality Health in downtown Phoenix. “Traffickers are using high school kids to go and bring the drugs back. We are dealing with people who do not have a criminal record but have been paid a large sum of money.”
Ms. Mitchell explains her office is working with officials at the state capitol to create a new law that targets dealers who sold the drug that resulted in the death of a user.
“We are seeing possession as the most common offense, but we are seeing a higher level of traffickers,” she said of current case load. “The other problem is just the sheer volume of cases.”
Jim Cope, chief special agent at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, who led the special task force that brought Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano to justice following his involvement in an elaborate ecstasy scheme.
“I have never seen an epidemic like this,” he said pointing out the sophistication of Mexican cartels who are largely responsible for the production of fentanyl found in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. “It is very organized south of the border. Here in Phoenix, it is largely freelance. The flow and volume is just crazy.”
For Mr. Cope, he says the loss of available manpower has brought inter-jurisdictional law enforcement entities together collaboratively.
“It’s a tough issue and I think one of the things is that it has done since it has really come on, is it has brought us together,” he said of the local law enforcement community. “I think tech and time has hurt us.”
In today’s digital environment, encrypted communication has largely reduced law enforcement’s ability to tap phone lines.
“The technology is forever evolving,” he said. “The new apps are killing the wire taps a bit — it has changed for law enforcement. It is the Uber-era of drug dealing. With a change in society regarding privacy we have to acknowledge that but some operators will flat our deny our subpoenas. I am not sure fighting is the right word, bur rather negotiating is taking place.”
For Ms. Oz, DEA special agent in charge, fentanyl is killing people.
“The threat is immense and it is not like anything I have seen before,” she said during the Leadership in Law Enforcement event earlier this month. “We are the gateway to the cartel here, but we are not going to arrest our way out of this.”
Ms. Oz explains a person can order fentanyl like a food delivery.
“You can sit on your phone and order fentanyl to your house — there have been 112,000 fentanyl overdoses in the last year — its the No. 1 cause of death for people aged 18 to 45. It takes all of us.”
While Ms. Oz admits data points can be distressing, she does say law enforcement in Arizona is making a difference.
“Drug trafficking is going to happen regardless of what we do,” she said. “They don’t care if we live or die, it is purely a business — it is a money driver, that is it.”