Opinion: How we stop fentanyl distribution rings

Crime and public safety is a central and growing concern across the nation and here in Colorado. Fentanyl remains the single biggest public safety issue facing our state. While steps were taken at the state Capitol this year to try and address the situation, those steps did not go nearly far enough.

We have all seen and been angered at the headlines telling of fentanyl’s deadly toll among our young people. And it is not only those addicted to this poison who are falling victim to it. Increasingly, the deaths are coming to those who take what they consider less dangerous illicit drugs which happen to be laced with fentanyl. Now, more than ever, taking any drug is akin to playing Russian Roulette.

It goes without saying that the deaths inflicted by this pernicious synthetic opioid are the most serious, tragic, and important part of the equation. But what is often not understood, or is understated, is fentanyl’s role in driving crime overall.

The numbers from the federal and the Colorado bureaus of investigation paint a disturbing picture in the state: crime is up across the board, a trend which started well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and which continues its devastating rise. Violent crime went up 17% between 2019 and 2021. Murder went up by 42%, making this one of the deadliest years in Colorado in decades. Property crime is up 20%. And vehicle theft, up a staggering 86%. A great deal of this increase can be attributed directly or indirectly to the importation, distribution, and use of fentanyl.

Distributing fentanyl is not merely a disorganized amateur undertaking, but a complex and sophisticated enterprise involving organized crime with their own hierarchies, networks, and resources. Over the past few months in the 18th Judicial District alone we have seized hundreds of thousands of deadly fentanyl pills from cartel-linked distributors, along with dozens of guns. The DEA conservatively estimates that 40% of those pills contain a potentially lethal dose.

To take a bite out of the cartel’s operations, district attorneys and law enforcement would benefit from the establishment of a statewide information fusion center that links cases between jurisdictions. With this kind of central coordination, intelligence developed from a case in, for example, Arapahoe County could be linked to an investigation of a distribution network in Mesa County.

In addition, the grant funding provided for in the Fentanyl Accountability Act, which goes into effect today, should be made available to local law enforcement agencies immediately. We can’t be bogged down by red tape when lives are on the line; police need the resources to fight this scourge now, instead of 10 months or a year from now. We must also leverage federal laws and the resources of federal partners to cover the many gaps in our state law.

The impact of all of this fentanyl-driven crime is devastating on individuals, families, businesses, and communities. More and more Coloradans leave their homes in the morning to find their vehicles missing, or to find their car’s catalytic converter has been sawed off while they were in the grocery store, costing them thousands. More and more Coloradans dare not go to a show or a restaurant in downtown Denver for fear of being mugged or worse. More and more Coloradans are terrified to send their kids to the store or a friend’s house, not knowing what might happen on the way. More and more businesses are shutting their doors or moving elsewhere after being broken into one too many times. Some businesses that choose to take their chances and remain in the downtown area are even charging “crime surcharges” to try and help cover their losses.

It is a shame that so much of this crime and social devastation is to finance and support an organized fentanyl distribution network that leaves a trail of death and hopelessness in its wake.

Political leaders at the state capitol recognized the seriousness of the fentanyl problem, if some did not quite grasp its full scope. A bill was passed in the final days of the legislative session to try and address the problem, and it included some good things – providing resources for the addicted, expanding access to Narcan, and other measures to try and reduce the harm done by this deadly drug. It also took a first step towards giving law enforcement the tools they need to combat this scourge by partially reversing the lamentable decision made two years ago to essentially decriminalize fentanyl by reducing possession of up to 4 grams of it to a misdemeanor. But so much more remains to be done.

The focus in recent years on the demand side of the equation – the addict – has been laudable, and those efforts need to continue. But just as the much-maligned “War on Drugs” over-focused exclusively on the supply side of the problem to the exclusion of addressing the problem of addiction, so does the new approach overlook the realities of fentanyl and its relationship to street crime.

This is not an academic exercise. Fentanyl is killing our young people, and the crime it spurs is impacting all Coloradans. Colorado’s neighborhoods should no longer be used as laboratories for exotic social experiments. Our political leaders need to recognize this is a crisis fueled by transnational criminal enterprises – cartels – and provide law enforcement and prosecutors the tools and support we need to be able to effectively combat it. This is our state, and it’s time we take it back from the dealers.

SOURCE: The Denver Post

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