Lexington has been chosen as one of 10 places nationwide where federal authorities will take part in a special enforcement program aimed at curbing distribution of synthetic opioids, powerful painkilling drugs that have helped drive up overdose deaths in Kentucky.
Under the plan Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday, 10 federal prosecutors will choose one county in their regions and prosecute “every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and other synthetic opioids, regardless of drug quantity,” according to a news release.
One thing different about the initiative is that cases involving low amounts of drugs sometimes don’t qualify for federal prosecution.
But Sessions said authorities are determined to break up synthetic opioid networks.
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“Simply put, we will be tireless until we reduce the number of overdose deaths in this country,” Sessions said.
The federal Eastern District of Kentucky, headquartered in Lexington, was one of the spots chosen for the program
The district covers the eastern half of the state. A news release from U.S. Attorney Robert M. Duncan Jr. indicated Fayette County will be the focus of increased enforcement.
Duncan said his office will work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Lexington police and the Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office on the program.
“Prosecuting opioid traffickers is one of the most important priorities for my office,” Duncan said in the release.
The Department of Justice picked places with high overdose death rates for the program.
Fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, helped push the number of overdose deaths in Kentucky to a record 1,404 in 2016, the last year with complete figures.
Fentanyl was involved in 47 percent of overdose deaths that year, either alone or in tandem with heroin, according to the state Office of Drug Control Policy.
That was up from 34 percent in 2015.
Abuse of fentanyl has spiraled in part because it is cheap. Police have reported problems with drug traffickers mixing it with heroin to increase their supply, or pressing it into a pill that looks like something else.
That means people who think they are taking heroin or a prescription painkiller such as oxycodone actually get a much stronger, more potentially lethal dose.
Just three milligrams of fentanyl — not enough to cover President Lincoln’s face on a penny — can be fatal, Sessions said.
The “enforcement surge” Sessions announced Thursday will include an effort by the DEA to make sure leads from street-level drug cases are used to identify bigger drug traffickers.
In addition, Duncan’s office and the nine others will get an additional assistant federal prosecutor to help with drug-related cases, according to a news release.
Sessions said the program was inspired by an initiative by the federal prosecutor’s office that covers Manatee County, Fla., just south of Tampa.
After the federal prosecutor there committed to taking every case possible, 45 traffickers were charged, and overdoses dropped by 77 percent, according to Sessions’ office.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to an average of 11 overdoses a day to less than one, according to the news release.
That shows prosecuting even seemingly small synthetic opioid cases can have a big impact, Sessions said.
The other districts included in the initiative are in Ohio, West Virginia, east Tennessee, California, Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.