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Feds warn of ‘unprecedented’ fentanyl crisis

Over the past two months, Homeland Security Investigations officers have seized as much fentanyl as they did in 2019, federal officials said, warning that the amount of the drug on the streets is increasing every year with deadly consequences.

Last year, there were 71,000 fentanyl-related deaths in the United States, including 1,600 in Los Angeles County, US Atty. Martin Estrada of the Central District of California said at a press conference Monday in Los Angeles

“Fentanyl has painted a trail of death across the country, in our district and in our community,” Estrada said. “Today’s crisis is unprecedented.”

The dangers are particularly heightened in Los Angeles County, which has become a major distribution center for fentanyl as Mexican drug cartels flooded the streets with cheaply manufactured counterfeit pills, often disguised to look like painkillers. prescription such as oxycodone.

On Monday, officials from the Justice Department, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and US Postal Inspection Service sounded the alarm about the continued growth of fentanyl.

In many cases, officials said, victims of fentanyl overdoses are unaware that the drugs they are taking contain fentanyl, which is considered significantly stronger than heroin and morphine and can be fatal in doses far below. weaker.

“The widespread death and suffering is caused by drug cartels who care far more about profits than people’s lives,” Estrada said. “These drug trafficking organizations continue to find ways to bring large shipments of fentanyl into the country.”

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug use among adolescents aged 14 to 18 has remained stable from 2010 to 2020, but a report from the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that teenage fentanyl deaths more than doubled from 2019 to 680 deaths in 2020.

Last year, that number rose to 884 deaths. Fentanyl was the cause of more than 77% of drug-related deaths among teenagers last year.

During the pandemic, drug traffickers and distributors have turned to social media and the dark web to sell illicit drugs, said Bill Bodner, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles. The result was that young victims were trapped in drug use and suffered overdoses using drugs they did not know contained fentanyl.

“Night clubs, bars, social gatherings – these places have been closed [during the pandemic], so what have the drug distributors done? Bodner said. “They went on social media.”

Federal officials believe most fentanyl in the United States is smuggled, primarily by the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, which manufacture fentanyl pills for about 13 cents each in Mexico, Bodner said.

In July, authorities seized a shipment of one million counterfeit fentanyl pills, Estrada said.

But law enforcement officials said they also found more incidents of drug manufacturing in the United States.

On Friday, for example, a federal grand jury indicted Christopher Hampton, 36, accusing the Cerritos man of operating drug labs in Inglewood and Compton that used high-speed presses to make fentanyl and methamphetamine pills. .

The drugs were sold on the darknet, an online world often accessible only through anonymizing private browsers and used for illegal transactions. There, according to federal officials, Hampton operated as “Narco710”, selling nearly $2 million worth of narcotics.

Hampton was arrested Nov. 2, and federal agents seized 450 pounds of suspected narcotics and six pill presses believed to be capable of making thousands of pills per hour. Several firearms were also seized.

Hampton, Estrada said, had also recruited employees to sell and distribute the drugs in the area.

“This case illustrates how some traffickers have created global networks to sell counterfeit pills,” Estrada said.

The investigation was led by the FBI’s Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement Team, or J-CODE, and the DEA HIDTA Tactical Diversion Squad. Hampton is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday for arraignment.

On Monday, federal officials pointed out that they have used several tactics to curb the spread of fentanyl, including the 4-year-old Overdose Justice Task Force, which launches investigations into fentanyl poisonings and targets resellers for possible lawsuits.

Since the task force was established, the US Department of Justice has charged 51 defendants related to overdoses.

But federal officials also said a public campaign to educate children would be key to reducing the threat of fentanyl-related overdoses.

“Every parent and guardian should educate themselves and their children of all ages about toxic fentanyl-containing drugs being sold on social media and through the darknet,” said Don Always, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. .

California Daily Newspapers

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