Opioid summit

U.S. Rep. Ryan, law officers discuss roles in fighting crisis

WARREN — U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan met with law enforcement officials Tuesday for a roundtable discussion about their role in combating the opioid epidemic.

The discussion was attended by officials from the Warren, Youngstown and Warren Township police departments as well as officials from the Trumbull and Mahoning County Sheriff’s Offices and those working in the parole and probation positions. It was closed to the public, but Ryan held a press conference afterward.

Ryan has introduced and co-sponsored several pieces of legislation aimed at increasing penalties for fentanyl trafficking and stopping shipments of synthetic drugs like fentanyl through the mail. The Stop Trafficking in Fentanyl Act would reduce from 400 to 20 grams of fentanyl quantity, and from 100 to 5 grams for fentanyl analogues quantity, that trigger a 10-year or 20-year mandatory prison term for offenders.

Ryan said he heard concerns from those present about a general lack of funding and manpower, a lack of lengthy treatment options, and long waits to get drug lab results back, which puts drug dealers back on the street to sell more as they wait for their day in court.

Synthetic opioid overdose deaths increased by 72 percent from 2014-15, according to information from Ryan’s office, with many of the deaths due to illicit fentanyl. Fentanyl, which is potent and can stretch a drug supply, is highly lucrative for traffickers. One kilogram of fentanyl purchased for around $8,000, can be cut to one million doses which brings in $20 to $30 million on the street, according to information from Ryan’s office.

Most of the fentanyl has roots in China, is shipped to Mexico and is smuggled into the United States. However, some dealers purchase directly from China and shipments come through the United States Postal Service, which Ryan said is like “trying to find a needle in a haystack.” The government can’t effectively identify which packages to inspect because tracking information on the initial packages containing fentanyl is limited, something the INTERDICT Act, co-sponsored by Ryan, aims to address.

Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Joseph Dragovich, who attended the roundtable, said he believes Ryan is truly concerned with helping law enforcement with their role in the opioid epidemic.

Dragovich said the phrase “we can’t arrest our way out of the epidemic” misses the mark and leaves many in law enforcement feeling as if their part in the problem is being viewed as an afterthought. Dragovich said anything that can be done to strengthen laws and examine penalties for certain possession thresholds of fentanyl is a step in the right direction.

“Everyone is challenged with manpower and money is tight,” Dragovich said. “But this isn’t a problem we can throw limited resources at.”

Laws have not caught up with the opioid problem, Dragovich said, and dealers know this and are able to exploit the system. Dragovich said he feels for those who have lost loved ones to overdoses, and he wouldn’t wish such suffering on anyone, but money needs to be pushed toward law enforcement and treatment alike.

An epidemic based in criminal activity cannot be solved through an approach that says the problem isn’t a crime is being promoted, Dragovich said.

“If this is a war let’s fight it like a war,” Dragovich said. “Fight it to win, fund it to win, staff it to win and push policy in a direction that helps you win.”

However, according to information from Ryan’s office that cites a number of research studies, there is no evidence tougher punishments and elimination efforts have decreased access to drugs or abuse of drugs than lighter penalties.

In 1980, there were 15,000 people in prison for drug dealing and today that number stands at 450,000 while drug prices are down dramatically, the information states, leading to the conclusion that longer and harsher sentences don’t result in less consumption or less abuse.