Two years after the U.S. Department of Justice launched Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (SOS), a program aimed at restricting the supply of dangerous synthetic opioids in high-impact areas across the United States, including the Southern District of Ohio, and identifying wholesale opioid distributors and international and domestic suppliers, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers and other state’s attorneys involved in the initiative have seen progress in the continuing fight against the opioid crisis. For more than two decades, the U.S. has experienced a growing epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction, which caused nearly 450,000 deaths from 1999 to 2018. Through initiatives like Operation SOS, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers and other state’s attorneys are working to reduce the impact of the opioid epidemic on America’s communities. Nationally, since the start of Operation SOS, an estimated 750 defendants have been charged in federal courts across the U.S., including 384 this year alone, and the districts participating in the program have seen a corresponding decline in opioid overdoses, with most reporting a drop of between 14% and 24%.
Table of Contents
Understanding the U.S. Opioid Epidemic
The misuse and abuse of opioid drugs, including prescription painkillers, illegal opioids like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, is a major national crisis that dates back to the 1990s, when drug manufacturing companies claimed that people taking opioid painkillers would not become addicted to the drugs and healthcare providers began prescribing them more frequently to relieve pain. Before it become evident that opioids could in fact be extremely addictive, the drugs became widely used and misused and the rate of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. climbed. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died from overdoses involving prescription opioid pain relievers, heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl. That same year, an estimated 1.7 million Americans experienced substance use disorders linked to prescription opioid painkillers and 652,000 experienced a heroin use disorder.
Under Operation SOS, which was launched in 2018, the U.S. Attorneys from 10 districts where drug overdose death rates represented some of the highest in the country each selected a county where they would concentrate their efforts on prosecuting every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl and other synthetic opioid drugs. “The Justice Department’s commitment to fighting the opioids epidemic is stronger than ever, and we are using every tool in our arsenal to disrupt the supply of these drugs on our streets,” said U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen in a recent Justice Department press release. “Operation SOS has had a significant positive impact on the communities where it is being employed. The Department will continue to build on these successes and work to stop the drug traffickers who so callously wreck lives.”
Ohio Defendants Charged in Federal Drug Cases
Operation SOS has had a positive impact on the opioid crisis in high-impact districts nationwide, including in the state of Ohio, which had the second-highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the country in 2017. In Dayton alone, 106 defendants have been charged in federal court since Operation SOS began two years ago, including approximately 50 defendants so far in 2020, and nearly all of the cases involved the synthetic opioid, fentanyl. “Street drug dealers often mix or ‘cut’ their dope with fentanyl, a drug 50 times more powerful than pure heroin and so potent that a few grains the size of salt can kill a person,” said David DeVillers, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. “More than 230 people in Montgomery County have died from accidental illegal drug overdoses so far this year and statistically, it’s likely that many of the deaths can be tied to fentanyl.”
In one fentanyl drug case reported by the Southern District of Ohio during Operation SOS, the lead defendant had reportedly arranged for large amounts of the synthetic opioid to be shipped from Mexico to his grandmother’s house in Dayton, where it was picked up and concealed at various locations around the city. Federal agents questioned the defendant in June 2019 and seized 483 grams of fentanyl from his residence. According to the report, the defendant intended to accept another 256 grams of fentanyl that same day. The defendant was sentenced last September to 150 months in prison.
In another Dayton case, an individual who had previously served nine years in state prison for a drug trafficking offense was arrested after police observed activity indicative of drug operations, including the delivery of what appeared to be a kilogram of narcotics by a courier. A search warrant was executed at a residence in Dayton, where members of the FBI Safe Streets Task Force located 1,716 grams of fentanyl, 1,205 grams of methamphetamine, 305 grams of heroin, drug processing equipment and 12 cell phones, one of which contained photos of multiple kilograms of fentanyl and communications with a narcotics supplier. Upon further investigation, law enforcement recovered an additional 19.5 kilograms of fentanyl/carfentanil.
Another fentanyl-related drug case prosecuted by the Dayton U.S. Attorney’s Office involved a defendant who was observed selling approximately 100 grams of fentanyl to an Indiana-based distributor of heroin/fentanyl. In October 2019, members of the Dayton-based Regional Agencies Narcotics and Gun Enforcement Task Force (RANGE), in conjunction with the DEA, executed a search warrant at the defendant’s residence, seizing approximately 674 grams of fentanyl, a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, a Glock 19 handgun, more than $42,000 in cash, five digital scales and drug processing equipment. The defendant pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Opioid Drugs and Fentanyl
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose is a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, with more than 100 deaths every day caused by overdoses involving prescription and illicit opioid drugs. Opioids are a class of drugs commonly used to treat moderate to severe pain, and while they are widely prescribed by healthcare professionals, these drugs also carry serious risks and side effects for users. Some of the most commonly used prescription opioid drugs include morphine, oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin), and one of the most common illegal opioids is heroin. And then there is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Like morphine, fentanyl is a prescription drug approved to treat severe pain, typically pain associated with advanced cancer or surgery. However, the drug is also illegally manufactured and distributed in many states across the U.S.
Fentanyl is a powerful drug known for its heroin-like effect. Sometimes, fentanyl is mixed with heroin and/or cocaine to increase its euphoric effects, with or without the user’s knowledge. Fentanyl that is made illegally contains an undetermined amount of the drug, and possibly other deadly substances, and most recent cases of fentanyl-related injury, overdose and death in the United States have been linked to fentanyl that was illicitly made and sold through illegal drug markets. Since 2013, the number of opioid overdose deaths involving illegally manufactured fentanyl has increased dramatically across the U.S. In 2018 alone, more than 31,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids (other than methadone) occurred nationwide, which is more deaths than from any other type of opioid drug. There are also fentanyl analogs, or fentanyl-related substances, such as carfentanil, acetylfentanyl, and furanylfentanyl, which are synthetic opioids that are similar in chemical structure to fentanyl but are modified to create distinct substances.
Opioid Overdoses and Deaths in Ohio
What makes opioid drugs like morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl effective for treating pain can also make them dangerous or even deadly. According to the CDC, roughly two-thirds of the 70,237 drug overdose deaths reported in the U.S. in 2017 involved opioids. And even as DeVillers and other state’s attorneys in high-impact areas are working to prosecute those responsible for illegally making and distributing fentanyl and other opioid drugs, the U.S. opioid crisis rages on. In February, President Trump stated during his State of the Union address that the opioid epidemic was getting better in Ohio. However, DeVillers amended Trump’s statement, saying that while heroin overdoses are down in Ohio, overdose deaths involving fentanyl are at an all-time high. “The problem now, is not necessarily the heroin. It is the fentanyl that is getting into other drugs,” DeVillers said in February. “People who are doing cocaine and crack cocaine don’t know it is in there.”
DeVillers voiced a similar concern just this week, when he announced on social media that at least 18 people had died from drug overdoses in Franklin County during the previous four days. According to DeVillers’ post, the overdose deaths are linked to counterfeit pills sold as Xanax, Percocet and even Adderall, which contain unknown amounts of fentanyl and methamphetamine. “We are seeing counterfeit pills containing fentanyl and meth smuggled through Mexico,” DeVillers wrote on Twitter. Because it takes very little fentanyl to produce a high, some distributors and suppliers are using the drug as an additive, mixing it with cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or MDMA. The drugs are then sold through illegal drug markets and buyers who think they are getting Xanax, Percocet or Adderall end up ingesting a potentially deadly dose of fentanyl or fentanyl in combination with other dangerous drugs.
Overdoses from Synthetic Opioids
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have emerged as the class of drugs most commonly involved in drug overdose deaths in the U.S., accounting for more than half of all opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017. Illegally made fentanyl is often sold in powder form, or it can be put in eye droppers or nasal sprays, dropped onto blotter paper, or made into pills that resemble other prescription opioids. Like morphine and heroin, fentanyl works by binding to the opioid receptors in the area of the brain responsible for controlling pain and emotions. However, since fentanyl is many times more potent than other opioid drugs, the effects of fentanyl use can be more intense, set in faster, or last longer. Taking fentanyl or any opioid drug repeatedly increases the risk of opioid addiction, dependence and tolerance.
As an extremely powerful opioid, fentanyl must be carefully prescribed and dosed by medical professionals. Anyone who abuses prescription opioids, with or without a prescription, or struggles with an addiction to fentanyl puts themselves at risk for an opioid overdose. One of the effects of fentanyl is slowed breathing and when a person overdoses on fentanyl, his or her breathing may become dangerously slow or stop altogether, which can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, resulting in a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can in turn lead to coma, permanent brain damage or possibly even death. Given the rise of synthetic opioid distribution in the Southern District of Ohio and nearby counties in recent years and its impact on the U.S. opioid epidemic, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers is committed to reducing the supply of deadly synthetic opioids in his jurisdiction and working in coordination with federal law enforcement to prosecute offenders.
About State’s Attorney David DeVillers
David DeVillers is the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. He was nominated for the position on September 9, 2019 and was sworn in on November 1. Before becoming a U.S. Attorney, DeVillers was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio for more than a decade. He also served as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Franklin County and as Director of the Organized Crime/Gang Unit for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office. Throughout his career, DeVillers has prosecuted dozens of federal cases involving gangs, organized crime and murder investigations, and has led numerous task forces in collaboration with the FBI, DEA, IRS, ATF and Columbus Division of Police. In 2016, DeVillers helped lead the team of prosecutors that pursued cases against 20 members of Ohio’s notorious Short North Posse street gang accused of racketeering and murder. Each defendant in the case was convicted on all counts and another 18 gang members were convicted of drug- and firearm-related offenses. As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, DeVillers’ jurisdiction includes Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, and he handles federal cases for the 48 southern counties of Ohio.