Officers beginning to take opioid addicts to rehab, not jail
Fentanyl-linked deaths jumped more than 400 percent from 2014 to 2017 and accounted for nearly the entire increase in overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Fentanyl has been flowing into the United States through two illicit pipelines. Mexican cartels are bringing it into the U.S. through the nation’s porous border along traditional drug trafficking routes. Meanwhile, Chinese laboratories are shipping more than 1 million packages a day to the U.S. through the Postal Service, which Congress is trying to stop with legislation signed by President Trump. China last month promised to clamp down on cut with fentanyl, Mr. Eaton said. He estimates that the number of fentanyl seizures over the past year has increased fivefold.
“When we arrived, we were seizing a lot of heroin mixed with fentanyl. Now it’s just fentanyl,” said Mark Skeffington, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s New England field division.
Fentanyl is becoming so popular that it is increasingly showing up in cocaine and synthetic marijuana, or K2. In 2012, 180 cocaine overdose deaths involved fentanyl or another synthetic opioid, according to the CDC. By 2016, that number had risen to nearly 4,200.
“We are not turning the tide in the opioid crisis because we are now seeing fentanyl cut with marijuana and cocaine,” Chief Walsh said. “We are not shocked anymore because this is the new normal.”
Cops as social workers
On an especially warm Tuesday afternoon in late May, DEA agents observed three people shooting heroin in a parking lot along the old industrial city’s surprisingly blue bay. The agents called local police to pick them up, but officers were too busy responding to a drug-related shooting across town.
“If we weren’t doing the work we are doing, imagine how bad it would be,” Mr. Skeffington said. “If we weren’t taking fentanyl off the streets, it would be chaos.”
The surge in drug use has forced law enforcement to shift its tactics to become more proactive than reactive.
“You are seeing a paradigm shift,” said Christopher Delmonte, police chief for Bridgewater, Massachusetts. “This is one of those times where our profession has changed. I’ve been in law enforcement for a long time, and I’ve only see two other paradigm shifts like this. The first was after the Rodney King riots, and the second was after 9/11.”
The opioid crisis has forced law enforcement to assume unfamiliar roles as drug counselors and social workers. Across the country, they are administering needle exchange programs, handing out naloxone, and visiting overdose survivors and encouraging them to enter rehab.
“I never thought I’d see the day when my officers are distributing drugs in a controlled way,” Chief Delmonte said.
Chief Walsh said his officers made about 1,800 home visits to overdose victims and recovering addicts last year. Some arrive in unmarked cars to help addicts avoid the stigma of police visits.
The visits can be discouraging because health care privacy laws prevent officers from enlisting family members to help addicts seek or maintain recovery. Nonetheless, they soldier on.