File photo of 17 packages of methamphetamine seized by officers during traffic stop in Washington City, Utah, June 19, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the Washington City Police Department, St. George News
ST. GEORGE — More than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses last year in the United States, and 550 of those deaths were in Utah – where the amount of illegal narcotics entering the state has skyrocketed in recent years. This year, there has been a sharp increase in every type of drug seized by police.
Drug poisoning deaths are the leading cause of injury death in Utah, according to Utah Health Indicator. In fact, drug overdoses kill 10 adults each week across the state on average – which is more than one person a day. Overdose deaths have now outpaced deaths due to firearms, falls and motor vehicle crashes, and in Utah, 80% of those deaths resulted from opioids – a drug that is proliferating nationwide.
To that end, a program to counter drug trafficking across the United States was implemented, dubbed the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, which targets primary routes where illicit drugs are being trafficked. The program consists of drug task force units, which work to combat these illicit shipments from reaching their intended destinations.
The organization also presents an annual award to the task force that goes above and beyond in their efforts to reduce the amount of drugs moving across the U.S. And this year, the distinguished “Drug Task Force of the Year” award was presented to the Washington County Drug Task Force during an event held in Denver.
The award recognizes the program’s efforts in curbing the tide of illicit narcotics moving through some of the most intense drug-trafficking areas across the state and is one of 30 programs operating within the Rocky Mountain HIDTA region – which includes Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.
The task force in Washington County is comprised of 15 agents and one analyst and was one of numerous programs nominated to receive the award. It is one of five Utah programs operating within Rock Mountain HIDTA region that includes Salt Lake, Weber, Utah and Davis counties.
The task force is comprised of officers from numerous police departments, including officers from St. George, Washington City and Hurricane police departments, as well as the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Homeland Security, Utah Army National Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
St. George Police Capt. Jordan Minnick told St. George News the task force is one of the smaller programs operating within the Rocky Mountain region. In fact, he said there are units operating in larger metropolitan areas that have a dozen agents working in one of several sectors operating within that particular county, meaning their overall agent numbers are significantly higher.
Minnick said the amount of narcotics seized over the last several years has skyrocketed in all types of drugs, but particularly with opioids. He said in terms of growth, if the drug task force were a Fortune 500 Company, the ranking would be outstanding.
This year, the task force in Washington County has seen an increase of more than 1,000% in heroin seizures, and fentanyl seizures are up more than 950%. These seizures are critical as opioid deaths account for every 8 out of 10 overdose deaths in Utah.
The significant rise in fentanyl seizures also shows the vast amount of this synthetic opioid that is being moved through the state, Minnick said, which is concerning, considering that fentanyl is concentrated and is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
Another factor that has led to a spike in fentanyl-related overdose deaths concerns the inconsistency in the dosage when fentanyl powder is pressed into pill form.
For example, he said, one pill can contain 60% fentanyl, while another pill only contains 10% of the drug, and if an individual takes one pill that has little effect, they may follow that up by taking two more pills to increase that effect.
What they may not realize, Minnick said, is the first pill only contained 10% of the drug, but each of the pills they just swallowed were loaded with a toxic amount of fentanyl — so much so that it kills them.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, one kilogram of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, can produce 1 million to 1.5 million doses in pill form.
Additionally, cocaine seizures have also seen a spike of more than 75%, while methamphetamine seizures are up by more than 160%. Marijuana seizures, including edibles, vapes and so on, were also up by more than 1,000%, and assets seized jumped by more than 660%. Assets also include cash seizures, and there are strict rules associated with any assets that are seized. Assets have to be linked directly to trafficking before they are confiscated by authorities.
Minnick said the numbers serve as an indicator of the increase in the amount of drugs being intercepted but can also act as a deterrent to traffickers who use the Southern Utah region as a thoroughfare to move illicit loads.
“This should also serve as a warning as to what we do,” he said.
The task force’s efforts extend beyond the cases filed in state court as well, Minnick said, and in fact, 50 of the cases last year were picked up by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. George and were prosecuted federally — a huge number for the area.
Additionally, the cases picked up by federal prosecutors do not involve street-level dealers, he said, adding these are the “biggest dealers you can think of — people that are exploiting addicts everywhere.”
Minnick said the partnerships formed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office have been “huge” in leading to the successful prosecution of cases, many of which have been hampered by the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives, or JRI. In theory, those initiatives were positive, he said, but they have also created difficult issues on the investigation side when it comes to drug trafficking as well as in what charges can be filed.
The award caught the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City, where acting U.S. Attorney Andrea T. Martinez called the Washington County Drug Task Force “an elite group of narcotics investigators whose hard work and dedication has resulted in record narcotics seizures and enforcement in Washington County.”
The drug task force has worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to dismantle drug organizations, intercept large shipments of narcotics and disrupt drug-trafficking activity in the local community.
“We greatly appreciate their partnership and their dedication to serving and protecting the public,” Martinez added.
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