Evolving tactics for combatting the opioid epidemic: A career drug prosecutor’s perspective
To address the scourge of drug abuse, we must combine proven law enforcement strategies with effective and uniformly applied laws, and prevention and education programs
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Presented by Thermo Fisher
By Monte Stiles
As a state and federal drug prosecutor for almost 30 years, I dealt with every imaginable type of illegal drug and drug trafficking organization, from multi-ton smugglers of Thai marijuana in the late 1980s to LA street gangs selling crack cocaine, biker gangs, black tar heroin dealers, meth cooks and drug cartels that sold everything at once.
I spent most of the last 24 years of my law enforcement career as the lead Assistant United States Attorney over the federal Organized Crime/Drug Enforcement Task Force for the District of Idaho. The mission of our team of agents, analysts and prosecutors was to identify, investigate and prosecute large-scale trafficking organizations.
Because these organizations rarely operated within the confines of a single state, most of our cases led to numerous other states and foreign countries where suspects, evidence, assets and witnesses could be found. A series of related investigations – which began in a world class ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho – took us to Hong Kong three times, twice to Thailand, and on a very interesting trip to Fiji where the Attorney General met us in his “war room” to discuss wiretaps, arrests and seizures of resort property in the islands.
Meth lab dangers
Although our task force investigated every kind of serious case, methamphetamine manufacturing and distribution consumed most of our resources for many years. Meth labs, big and small, represented an environmental nightmare, as well as physical dangers associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, fires and explosions. My agent friends wore sophisticated hazmat gear for protection that shielded their bodies from some, but not all of these dangers.
In the case of smaller labs – often located in single-family houses – heavily armed and protected officers would routinely approach a residence where broken tricycles and other toys littered the yard. Upon entering these toxic waste dumps, it was common for officers to encounter toddlers walking around in bare feet and dirty diapers. Chemists from the state lab would conduct an extensive analysis of everything, from unlabeled liquids in the refrigerator to traces of methamphetamine on food, clothing and bedding.
The cost of these investigations was enormous, especially given the cleanup that was required at the end. Chemical testing alone was tedious, dangerous, time-consuming and expensive, and the tools that were available at the time – including chemical wet tests that produced various colors requiring human interpretation – were far from ideal.
Advances in LE tech improve evidence collection, officer safety
Many years have passed since I began my career in law enforcement. During that time, I have witnessed the increased sophistication of drug trafficking operations, as well as technical advances in law enforcement tools. These tools, along with innovative investigative strategies, have greatly enhanced our ability to gather compelling evidence leading to convictions.
In our current world however, the emergence of hundreds of new synthetic opioids, which have caused a dramatic spike in opioid-related deaths, has shifted the national attention to how opioid addictions and deaths can be prevented and treated. Like many times before, when faced with a new crisis, government solutions seem to focus on throwing a tremendous amount of money in the direction of a perceived quick fix, with virtually no understanding of the root causes of the problem or truly effective solutions.
Because of a significant increase in the illicit market for fentanyl, some law enforcement agencies have decided to stop testing suspected narcotics in the field with wet chemistry kits because of fentanyl exposure concerns. Even the smallest amounts of fentanyl, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, can lead to an overdose or death. Consequently, new technology is essential for officer safety.
A device called TruNarc is helping officers identify drugs in the field without “blindly” handling them. TruNarc can identify over 400 substances, including 36 fentanyl variants. Instead of physically transferring a suspected substance into a plastic vial, TruNarc uses a laser and Raman spectroscopy to identify these drugs, typically without removing the suspected chemicals from its container, and results can be obtained in approximately 30 seconds.
In today’s world, I am envious of investigators and prosecutors who rely on sophisticated technology for presumptive testing that almost immediately identifies a bewildering number of drugs and precursors through Raman spectroscopy. Instead of fictional taste tests, vague interpretations of colors, or expensive and time-consuming laboratory analysis, prosecutors and officers can determine the exact chemical fingerprint of a suspected drug. That chemical fingerprint is compared to an internal library of known substances consistently updated to meet emerging threats.
Refining LE strategies
Thirty years of law enforcement experiences have led to some firmly held opinions regarding effective solutions to the scourge of drug abuse. I know that this can be accomplished by combining proven law enforcement strategies with effective and uniformly applied laws, as accompanied by prevention and education programs that can change public attitudes and norms so fewer people start down the path of addiction.
In other words, we need to take out the bad guys, destroy their distribution networks and seize their ill-gotten gains, while promoting choices that produce healthy children and families, and safe communities. The last seven years – which have involved working with kids, drug prevention coalitions, law enforcement agencies and entire communities – have only confirmed the value of this combined strategy.
As law enforcement moves forward, we will encounter old and new obstacles in our efforts to protect children, families and communities. With innovative law enforcement techniques, renewed support from leaders and citizens, and the latest technology, we can productively and safely go about our duty to “protect and serve” both the public and our fellow officers.
About the Author
After almost 30 years in law enforcement, Monte Stiles was hired as a legal consultant/counter narcotics for Thermo Fisher Scientific.