As the new year rolls in, Drug Enforcement Administration Divisions across the U.S. are seeing overdose deaths climb at an alarming rate, especially those caused by the synthetic opioid, fentanyl. Only weeks ago, the DEA reported overdose deaths in the U.S. had topped 100,000 for the first time over a 12-month period ending last spring. Jarod Forget, Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the DEA’s Washington Division is taking this personally.
“Too many people in our area are still unaware of the problem,” said SAC Forget.
In 2020, fatal opioid overdoses in the D.C. area surged dramatically — in some cases, to the highest levels ever recorded. Throughout 2021, these numbers only increased. And in January of 2022, the District of Columbia saw rashes of overdose deaths occurring due to “bad batches” of fentanyl-laced drugs being distributed to hard-hit communities.
Based on the most recently available data, 2021 was an even deadlier year for much of the region — a trend that is exacerbated by the Mexican cartels’ efforts to turn a quick profit. The DEA has been seeing Mexican cartels sourcing raw, dangerous chemicals from China, using these chemicals to cheaply produce the deadly synthetic opioid, fentanyl. This fentanyl is then trafficked into the area, mixed into almost every illicit drug, and sold to unsuspecting buyers, causing an extraordinary spike in deadly overdose deaths.
Last year, fatal overdoses rose by more than 40 percent across both D.C. and Virginia. As of Aug. 2021, D.C. had already surpassed the number of drug overdose deaths for the year prior. In the District, this overdose problem is disproportionately impacting black residents and communities, who make up almost 85 percent of all fatal drug overdoses since 2015, according to the D.C. medical examiner’s office.
In Virginia, drug overdose deaths in the first half of 2021 were already 22 percent higher than the prior year. Making 2021 likely the deadliest year for fatal drug overdoses in the Commonwealth. This year, officials predict Virginia will see more than 2,600 overdose deaths – a staggering number.
Maryland saw opioid overdose fatalities increase by roughly 18 percent from 2019 to 2020 and most recent data show the state is on track to outpace that number this year.
“We are working to combat the problem in a number of new and innovative ways,” said SAC Jarod Forget. “We have been working with our partners across the region and have some incredible new programs and strategies we are rolling out this year. Those, combined with our already bolstered drug seizures and enforcement numbers, will help us stand up against this outrageous rise in the fentanyl we are seeing in our area.”
The trends in the DMV (the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) are mirroring those of the nation – fatal drug overdoses are up over 30 percent from the previous year. Many experts have attributed the spike in overdoses, at least in part, to the stress and isolation of the pandemic. However, SAC Forget explained this was only part of the issue.
“Mexican cartels and major drug trafficking organizations have been taking advantage of this time and flooding our country and our local communities with this horribly deadly drug.” – SAC Forget
Another important issue, he notes, is the ability for these drug dealers to sell online, to our children.
Social Media Makes Drug Sales Easy for Cartels
Drug sales on social media have been up. The DEA Washington Division has had a number of large investigations in the D.C. area involving drug dealers marketing to unsuspecting children, young adults, and members of the public who think they are getting legitimate prescription drugs. Drug dealers are able to sell practically anonymously to unsuspecting members of the public, and deliver potentially poisonous drug as easy as DoorDash delivers food.
“If you know where to look and you're on social media quite a bit, you'll easily be able to find drugs like this,” explained SAC Forget. “Unfortunately, our kids ARE much more savvy with social media than we are. And they are the ones we see finding this stuff and dying from it. We must spread the word and stop this from happening in our communities.”
Fentanyl’s Detrimental Effects on our Communities
Due to its cheap production cost and high potency, fentanyl is being added or mixed into almost every purchasable drug, according to the DEA Washington Division. Through seizures and drug tracking data, they are seeing fentanyl in almost every street drug, as well as in the new surge of counterfeit prescription pills.
“We are fighting this new crisis of fentanyl related overdoses even among people who never intended to ingest an opioid,” SAC Forget explains. “The nature of this crisis has really shifted over recent years. All people in all communities are 100% at risk of coming in contact with this deadly drug.”
As social media platforms evolve into an internet street corner for drug dealers, the use of emojis has evolved over the past few years into a form of communication between dealers and buyers. Children and young adults are understanding what the terminology means and testing it.
Keeping our Kids Safe
People looking for drugs online don't even need to ask for a certain type of drug. They can send an emoji and drug dealers know exactly what they're talking about, can pay and deliver, all almost seamlessly online.
The DEA has a quick reference guide to help understand meanings of certain emojis as they relate to potential online drug deals. SAC Forget suggests concerned parents not try to memorize each, as they constantly evolve, but use the guide to further understand the issue and how to stay informed, and speak with their kids.
SAC Forget, along with his Division’s new strategy and enforcement efforts, relays that it takes more than law enforcement to combat the issue. He passionately implores parents to talk with their kids. Have these conversations, regardless of the likelihood of drug issues. Communication with our children about these issues ahead of time is what keeps them safe. If something doesn’t add up, keep that in mind – you might need to dig further.
“The number of deaths in our area, and across the country, are staggering,” added SAC Forget. “We’re all working hard to ensure we don’t lose one more child to this problem.”
The DEA also provides information about counterfeit pills, manufactured in Mexico by drug cartels and contain fentanyl, many times in lethal doses. SAC Forget explains these knock-offs are made with professional pill presses by the cartels, making it impossible to distinguish a counterfeit from an authentic painkiller, sold in a pharmacy by prescription.