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U.S. Department of Justice takes aim at Eastern Kentucky opioid crisis with new initiative

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

Eastern Kentucky is one of 10 regions nationwide that will be part of a new initiative announced by the U.S. Department of Justice to combat the opioid crisis.

Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge seeks to reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids in high-impact areas and to identify wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers, according to U. S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Robert M. Duncan, Jr., U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky

According to DOJ, the department is launching an enforcement surge in 10 judicial districts with some of the highest drug overdose death rates, including the Eastern District of Kentucky. In addition, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces Executive Office will send an additional two-year, term Assistant United States Attorney to each participating district to assist with drug-related prosecutions.

Each participating United States Attorney’s Office will choose a specific county and prosecute every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and other synthetic opioids, regardless of drug quantity. This will involve a coordinated DEA Special Operations Division operation to insure leads from street-level cases are used to identify larger scale distributors. Operation S.O.S. was inspired by a promising initiative of the United States Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida that involved Manatee County, just south of Tampa.

“Prosecuting opioid traffickers is one of the most important priorities for my Office,” said Robert M. Duncan, Jr., U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky. “We appreciate the Department providing us with additional resources to focus on this significant problem. We will work in partnership with our colleagues in law enforcement, including the DEA, the Lexington Police Department, and the Fayette Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, to reduce the supply of these deadly drugs.”

“When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case,” Sessions said. “In 2016, synthetic opioids killed more Americans than any other kind of drug. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal – that’s not even enough to cover up Lincoln’s face on a penny. Our prosecutors in Manatee County, Florida, have shown that prosecuting seemingly small synthetic opioids cases can have a big impact and save lives, and we want to replicate their success in the districts that need it most.”

The Middle District of Florida committed to prosecuting every readily provable drug distribution case involving synthetic opioids in Manatee County, regardless of drug quantity, leading to indictments of 45 traffickers of synthetic opioids.

From the last six months of 2016 to the last six months of 2017, overdoses dropped by 77.1 percent and deaths dropped by 74.2 percent. Overall, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdoses a day to an average now of less than one per day.

“The results of the Manatee County initiative have set a high bar,” Duncan said. “With the additional resources provided by the Department, and through our strong law enforcement partnerships, we will enhance our efforts to combat this problem and provide meaningful help to our community.”

Duncan’s district encompasses the 67 easternmost counties in Kentucky, with a population of about 2.2 million, and includes the cities of Lexington, Covington, Frankfort, Ashland, Pikeville, Somerset and London.

Other states participating in the initiative are Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maine, California, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

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