Attorney General Sessions and United States Attorney Stuart Announce Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Attorney General Jeff Sessions and United States Attorney Mike Stuart today announced Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (S.O.S.), a new program that seeks to reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids in high impact areas and to identify wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers.
As part of Operation S.O.S., the Department will launch an enforcement surge in 10 districts with some of the highest drug overdose death rates, including the Southern District of West Virginia. In 2016, an estimated 890 people died of drug overdoses in West Virginia, 574 of which occurred in the Southern District of West Virginia. Opioid-related overdoses accounted for 492 of the District’s overdose deaths, with 226 of them being fentanyl-related.
Each participating United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) 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. The surge will involve a coordinated DEA Special Operations Division operation to insure that 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 involving Manatee County, Florida.
“When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case,” Attorney General 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. This new strategy—and the new prosecutors who will help carry it out—will help us put more traffickers behind bars and keep the American people safe from the threat of these deadly drugs.”
In addition, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) Executive Office will send an additional two-year term Assistant United States Attorney to each participating district to assist with drug-related prosecutions.
“I really appreciate the confidence that the Attorney General has demonstrated in my leadership and the work being done in my office,” said United States Attorney Mike Stuart. “Our aggressive law enforcement actions are being recognized and rewarded by the Administration and the Department of Justice. We fully intend to capitalize on this historic opportunity for West Virginia. We look forward to working closely with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to make this new AUSA position as productive as possible and significantly reducing the number of synthetic opioid overdose deaths in the District.”
The 10 participating districts are:
- Northern District of Ohio
- Southern District of Ohio
- Eastern District of Tennessee
- Eastern District of Kentucky
- Southern District of West Virginia
- Northern District of West Virginia
- District of Maine
- Eastern District of California
- Western District of Pennsylvania
- District of New Hampshire
In Manatee County, a county just south of Tampa with a population of about 320,000, overdoses and deaths skyrocketed in 2015 (780 overdoses/84 opioid related deaths) and 2016 (1,287 overdoses/123 opioid related deaths). In summer of 2016, local law enforcement reported frequent, street-level distribution of fentanyl and carfentanil for the first time.
To combat this crisis, the Middle District of Florida committed to prosecuting every readily provable drug distribution case involving synthetic opioids in Manatee County regardless of drug quantity. The effort resulted in the indictments of forty five traffickers of synthetic opioids. Further, from the last six months of 2017 to the last six months of 2016, overdoses dropped by 77.1% and deaths dropped by 74.2%. 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.