Technology, Aggressive Policing Address Nationwide Opioid Supply

More than 15 senators last week wrote to the Senate Appropriations Committee seeking money for improved equipment to sniff out fentanyl, the synthetic opioid said to be 50 times stronger than heroin.

by The Salem News, Mass. / June 2, 2017
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(TNS) -- Addressing the opioid scourge that has killed thousands of people in our region is a complex mission that requires many hands. One cannot say enough about the good work of community leaders, nonprofit groups, churches, law enforcement and others who’ve found creative ways to support people in their personal battles with addiction. Or for the innovative programs helping people — youth especially — avoid the abuse of painkillers and use of opioids in the first place.

But it’s difficult, nigh impossible, to turn back this insidious problem without meeting it at its source. That’s why two recent developments are so significant for the North Shore — indeed for New England and the country.

One takes the form of news from Washington, D.C., where a group of senators continues to lobby to equip border agents with superior technology to detect fentanyl crossing into the United States from Mexico. The other is the take-down of a sprawling, Lawrence-based drug ring that peddled opioids throughout New England.

It would be naive to think any single development — even the arrest of more than 30 people accused of working in a vast drug-delivery network — will halt the damage and heal the wounds of this public health crisis. Yet developments of this order are all that can significantly cut into supplies and distribution, making drugs harder to find and more difficult to afford.

Focusing on the country’s borders, more than 15 senators last week wrote to the Senate Appropriations Committee seeking money for improved equipment to sniff out fentanyl, the synthetic opioid said to be 50 times stronger than heroin. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, were among those making the case for buying upgraded screening devices for Customs and Border Protection agents, and for hiring more scientists to work in the agency’s forensic laboratories.

Markey and Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, are also sponsoring a bill calling on the government to acquire the equipment.

Most of the fentanyl sold in the United States is imported from Mexico, the senators noted, although Chinese agents are blamed for supplying chemicals used to make the drug. Once produced, fentanyl crosses the southwest border, typically by mail or shipping container, and it’s often obscured within legitimate products. Customs agents seized more than 200 pounds of fentanyl and synthetic opioids last year. Using better devices, they presumably will root out even more.

Hopefully Capitol Hill’s budget writers also see the value of better equipment at the borders, while also continuing to support law enforcement networks in operations, such as one that unfolded in dramatic fashion on Tuesday in Lawrence.

After more than a year of legwork, more than 200 officers and agents from federal, state and local departments mustered at 4 a.m. before fanning out to make more than 30 arrests. Authorities said the drug ring they had targeted was a sophisticated, dial-up delivery service that supplied buyers throughout New England.

Some of those captured were living in the United States illegally, and a number of them had been previously deported. Those under arrest this week face drugs, weapons and immigration charges in federal and state courts. Police also seized nearly five pounds of fentanyl, worth more than $150,000.

Such large-scale operations are difficult to develop and coordinate, and they don’t happen regularly. Nor do chances to apply technology to meaningfully constrict the fentanyl supply. That should raise everyone’s appreciation for these efforts to stop the drug supply and shut off its distribution when they do occur.

Nearly 1,900 people died from opioid overdoses in Massachusetts last year, according to state health officials. Seven in 10 had fentanyl in their bodies. Unless the supply is restricted and sales are slowed, increasingly potent drugs will raise the death toll even higher.

©2017 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.