Federal prosecutors finding new ways to fight Ky.’s opioid crisis

The latest statistics indicate that 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017 — the highest death toll in a single year and a staggering figure. Nearly 30,000 of those deaths were attributable to one particularly deadly synthetic opioid — fentanyl.

Our great commonwealth knows the consequences of the crisis far too well.

According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy’s 2017 Overdose Fatality Report, 1,468 Kentucky residents died of drug overdoses in 2017. Fentanyl was involved in 763 of those deaths, accounting for 52 percent, up from 47 percent in 2016.

The Eastern District of Kentucky is at Ground Zero in the overdose crisis.

During 2017, in the 67 counties comprising our district, we had 894 overdose deaths, approximately 61 percent of the resident overdose deaths for the entire state.

More alarmingly, the top five counties in the commonwealth, with the highest per capita overdose death rates, are all in our district.

Similarly, four of the top five counties, with the most fentanyl-related overdose deaths, are also in our district — including Fayette County.

Fayette ranked second in fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2017, with 112 overdoses. Fayette was also third for overdose deaths related to both heroin and fentanyl, with 33 additional deaths.

The statistics represent real people who fell prey to the plague of addiction. These are not just numbers on a page, they are friends and loved ones. While prevention and treatment are critically important, law enforcement also plays a key role in fighting this crisis.

The Department of Justice, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is fighting back, and is using every tool in the toolbox — and even creating new ones — to do so.

Our office has received additional resources to combat the drug threat facing our district. Earlier this month, the attorney general announced Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge. SOS is based on a successful initiative in Manatee County, Fla., where law enforcement aggressively prosecuted fentanyl-distribution cases, helping in the reduction of overdose death rates.

The program resulted in a significant number of federal prosecutions. Our office was one of 10 selected to receive funding for a new prosecutor that will be dedicated to reducing access to illicit fentanyl.

Working in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Lexington Police Department and the Fayette Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, we will aggressively prosecute cases involving the distribution of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids — because with these drugs, there is no such thing as a small case.

By working with our colleagues in law enforcement, we will strive to reduce our overdose rates. One year ago, the attorney general announced the formation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse and Detection Unit, an innovative initiative that uses data and analytics to target heath-care fraud related to prescription opioids.

As a recipient of these resources, our office will investigate and aggressively prosecute doctors who prey on opioid addiction here in Kentucky and defraud the government in the process.

Finally, as part of our mission to reduce access to all illegal drugs, we will continue our support of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, a multi-agency effort to disrupt and dismantle the most significant drug trafficking and criminal organizations.

Our local prosecutions have resulted in the seizure of enormous quantities of heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine and other drugs; the seizure of millions of dollars in drug proceeds; and the convictions of numerous drug traffickers.

We will continue to prioritize these important investigations. The work of law enforcement is critical to our success in combating this crisis. It will continue to make a difference, reduce crime and save lives.

Robert M. Duncan Jr. is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky.