A growing epidemic of drug overdose deaths cuts a deep, jagged line in the St. Louis area, sparing almost no city or neighborhood.
More than 1,000 people in the St. Louis area died of drug overdoses last year — a record number — and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine, was the main reason.
Fentanyl contaminates virtually all illicit drugs such as crack and methamphetamine, as well as counterfeit versions of popular prescription drugs such as Xanax and Adderall. Fatal overdoses occur because users of these drugs unwittingly ingest fentanyl, traces of which can be fatal.
Sayler Fleming, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Missouri, told more than 200 law enforcement and prosecutors from 50 agencies on Thursday that the urgent nature of the overdose crisis means they must take an approach more stringent – turn overdose deaths into homicides.
“When it comes to drug overdose deaths, especially when it comes to fentanyl, I think we’re fighting a very, very uphill battle,” Fleming told attendees of Operation OD Justice, a conference held on Thursday. at Twin Rivers Church in southern St. Louis County.
The nature of the opioid crisis is particularly insidious due to the fact that fentanyl is so deadly and ubiquitous, according to Fleming.
In recent decades, it was common for teenagers and young adults to experiment with drugs such as Xanax or Percocet, she said.
“More likely than not, they usually knew what they were taking,” Fleming said. “But we now know that often they don’t know what they’re taking. They can take a Percocet or they can take a Percocet with fentanyl.
Michael Davis, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s St. Louis office, noted that last year 1,030 people died in the St. Louis area as a result of drug overdoses.
“It’s a lot,” he said. “We have a lot to do. We have to hold individuals and organizations accountable on our streets and kill our citizens.”
Davis noted that the DEA and other federal agencies are engaging with China and India to keep precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl out of America, while the DEA is also working to Interdict drug traffickers who smuggle fentanyl across the Mexican border.
Davis called on law enforcement and local prosecutors to aggressively pursue drug overdose cases.
“We want to distribute the wealth,” he said.
Fleming pointed out that prosecuting a drug overdose death can be very complex because “you have a drug trafficking angle and you have a homicide angle. At some point, you say to yourself, “Why go the extra mile to tie the two together? Because we can take this guy off the streets for a simple distribution.
But closing that gap is worth the extra effort, Fleming said, “because we’re not just getting a drug dealer off the street, we’re going to get him off the street for a long, long time, maybe. be forever. ”
There’s another benefit to taking this approach, she said.
“We’re also going to bring a sense of justice, maybe a little peace to family members, their friends, and anyone who’s been left behind,” she said. “And I think you’re finally going to send a message.” And I think that’s going to be a very strong message… Some people are going to listen to that. Maybe it will at least make them think twice.
Members of the news media were asked to leave after Fleming and Davis’ opening remarks.
The remainder of the one-day conference was devoted to a wide range of topics dealing with overdose death investigations, including mapping overdose data, interpreting toxicology reports, and providing officers with law enforcement tools to work more effectively with state and local prosecutors. Speakers came from Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Diego, according to the event schedule.
Nationally, an average of 295 Americans die each day from drug overdoses. The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there were approximately 108,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021, an increase of nearly 15% from the previous year.
In later remarks to the media, Fleming said his office planned to hire a prosecutor to focus exclusively on drug overdose deaths.
The difficulties in prosecuting dealers linked to drug overdose deaths are exemplified by the obstacles faced by the DEA and Fleming’s office in prosecuting those responsible for St. Louis’ worst massive overdose event.
The massive overdose event happened in early February, when eight people died from ingesting fentanyl-tainted crack cocaine at Parkview and Park Place apartments in the city’s mid-west.
Within days, the DEA filed charges against Chuny Ann Reed, a longtime heroin and fentanyl user. Reed supported his addiction by selling crack cocaine to neighbors from his apartment on the 14th floor of Parkview Apartments.
But after eight months, Reed remained the only person arrested and charged in the case, and the case against her centered on a federal charge of distributing fentanyl and crack cocaine that resulted in bodily harm, not homicide. No one else has been charged in connection with the eight deaths.
Reed died in July at the Southern Illinois Jail where she had been held pending trial. The Illinois State Police Criminal Investigation Unit is still investigating his death.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the eight overdose deaths is still ongoing, Davis said.
“I can’t really talk about this case,” he said. “Because it’s an active investigation. But I can tell you this, when we work on these types of cases, we don’t just focus on one person, we focus on, hey look, who that person got it from and who that person got it from obtained. We always want to find the ultimate distributor of these types of drugs. »
Contact Mike Fitzgerald on Twitter @MikeWearAMask.