West Virginia has long struggled with drug addiction, and the extensive damage suffered by its residents is well documented. But just when we thought the worst was behind us, a new substance appeared, more dangerous than any drug before it. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is so deadly it makes heroin look tame, so potent it can stop an elephant, and so profitable that Mexican drug cartels are mass-producing it to sell to states. -United. As law enforcement prepares an aggressive response, we must all participate if we hope to defeat this deadly threat.
The introduction of fentanyl into the supply chain has changed the way drug cartels operate. A particularly concerning difference is the emergence of counterfeit pills designed to look like brand name drugs – like OxyContin, Adderall or Xanax – but instead contain fentanyl. The cartels know that most people would rather take a pill than inject or snort drugs, so they are ramping up the production of fake pills. The lack of quality control and imprecise dosage make their use particularly dangerous.
Combining other drugs with fentanyl has also become commonplace. For example, recreational cocaine users are now unknowingly buying coke cut with fentanyl. As a result, these part-time users are at greater risk for addiction and overdose, a lesson recently learned by a group of West Point cadets over spring break. Dealers don’t want their customers to die, but they want them to spend more money. Adding fentanyl to drugs like cocaine can cause a monthly client to come in once a week and turn occasional users into full-fledged addicts.
The amount of drugs the cartels produce today is far greater than ever. The process no longer requires growing poppy plants outdoors and has moved indoors to laboratories where production quantities are unlimited. This means that cartels can ship large quantities of fentanyl to the United States and not worry if some of it is seized because they will simply manufacture more.
The way drug sales take place has also changed. Transactions used to be concluded through unencrypted calls or text messages and then carried out hand-to-hand. Although it still happens, many resellers have turned to the dark web or social media to sell their product and then have it delivered by courier or parcel. Platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat are used for marketing. Communications are now more likely to take place over encrypted systems that are difficult for law enforcement to monitor.
Experimentation carries far greater risks than ever before. In the past, when teenagers tried potentially dangerous substances, the threat of harm was not as great because the drugs were not as dangerous. But the emergence of fentanyl has changed that. A pill can kill. The era of being able to experiment and live to tell may not be over, but the risks have increased dramatically.
In response to the threat, local, state, and federal agencies in West Virginia have made banning fentanyl a top priority. Highway patrol officers stop cars and trucks known to be carrying the substance. K-9 agents and their handlers detect and intercept packages containing fentanyl. Task forces work long hours to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations and use search warrants to seize the deadly drugs.
But despite the tremendous efforts of law enforcement, fentanyl will still reach the streets of West Virginia. This is why community education and engagement are so important. Parents need to talk to their children; schools must educate students; pastors must enlighten the faithful; and neighbors should help neighbors. We all need to support, embrace and encourage people in treatment and recovery.
The challenge we face is great and the road ahead will not be easy. However, by combining the strength of our law enforcement with our already resilient and caring communities, the people of West Virginia can overcome the threat posed by this deadly drug.
— William Ihlenfeld is the United States Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia.