Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) announced that fentanyl has displaced heroin as the deadliest drug in America. Here in Maryland, fentanyl will kill more than 2,000 people this year, after killing almost 1,600 last year, and up from 58 in 2013 — an increase of 3,400 percent in just five years. And in Baltimore, fentanyl overdoses will take at least twice as many lives as homicides. Fentanyl is cheap, potent, highly addictive and deadly.
That’s why my office last week launched the Synthetic Opioid Surge (“SOS”) initiative. Under this program, every arrest in Baltimore for fentanyl distribution will be reviewed jointly by the State’s Attorney’s Office for Baltimore City, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Maryland to determine whether the case will be prosecuted in the state or federal system.
Federal prosecutors will pursue more cases involving fentanyl, bringing federal resources, laws and prison sentences to bear on those dealers who pose the greatest threat to public safety. We’re starting in Baltimore and are eager to expand to other areas hit hard by fentanyl. Word should spread that if you sell fentanyl on the streets, you run a very real risk of federal time.
Drug dealers charged by my office face federal prison sentences, which are never suspended, carry no possibility of parole and are served in prisons far from home. Defendants may also face mandatory minimum sentences. For example, a defendant convicted of distributing 40 grams of fentanyl — enough to kill 20,000 people (just 2 milligrams can be fatal) — faces at least five years in federal prison; 400 grams means at least 10 years. If the distribution of fentanyl results in death, the mandatory minimum sentence rises to 20 years in federal prison.
The heartbreak caused by fentanyl has become all too common. And all too often, drugs and guns go hand in hand. In 2016, a 35-year-old woman was found dead of a fentanyl overdose, sitting in the back seat of a car near three used syringes. When police arrested her dealer, they found in his home more fentanyl and multiple guns, including a rifle loaded with armor-piercing rounds in a high-capacity magazine.
Drug dealers continue to peddle heroin but prefer fentanyl’s higher profit margins. They can buy a kilogram of fentanyl from China for $5,000, then sell it here for 10 times that. A kilogram of heroin, by contrast, can cost $60,000. They also press fentanyl into pills and lace heroin or cocaine with it. Users often have no idea that what they’ve bought contains fentanyl.
Treating users and educating the public, particularly our youth, are necessary parts of the solution. My office is partnering with the DEA to deploy billboards to help ensure that everyone knows how deadly fentanyl is. But criminal enforcement is essential to ending this crisis. We need to target street dealers as well as corrupt pharmacists and medical providers. Treatment and prevention alone won’t stop the sellers, who are driven by profit and greed.
In addition to the SOS initiative, my office is prosecuting fentanyl cases all over the state, as this deadly drug knows no geographic, socioeconomic or age limits, and we are pursuing sources of supply in other states and abroad. In November, my office indicted three men for fentanyl distribution. They allegedly obtained drugs from a Miami-based drug-trafficking organization to sell in Baltimore; to date, law enforcement agents on that case have seized 20 kilograms of fentanyl and more than $500,000 in cash. In June, a Hagerstown man was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for distributing heroin laced with fentanyl. In July, a Gaithersburg man pleaded guilty to distributing fentanyl and cocaine that killed a customer; he faces between 10 and 20 years in prison.
We must remember the personal human tragedy associated with the grim statistics. Just weeks before the 35 year old woman referenced above died from an overdose, she sent the following text message to a friend: “I don’t want to [be] this way. I worked and fought too hard to throw it all away. I almost overdose[d] the other night. I don’t know what to do.”
Law enforcement organizations know what to do in order to prevent more of these tragedies, and we are resolved to do it.
Robert K. Hur is the U.S. attorney for Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.