Federal agents work to plug opioid drug pipeline

Deadly fentanyl-laced heroin major focus for DEA

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – From local police to state troopers and federal agents, ending the opioid epidemic takes a lot of players.

The top authority is the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is actively working to stop drugs at the border and to end both the supply and demand in Northeast Florida.

A DEA agent told News4Jax that much of the heroin is coming from Colombia and the fentanyl from China.

The drugs are shipped to Mexico, smuggled into the U.S.  and then mixed into a deadly concoction.

A lot of the drugs come through hubs, like Houston and Atlanta, before they end up in Florida. 

In Port Canaveral, opioids and other illegal drugs are being found tucked away in cruise ship passenger baggage and hidden in belt buckles.

In January, the Brevard County Sheriff's Office brought in trained K-9 dogs to help sniff out the drugs.  

In addition to stopping drugs from coming into the area, DEA agents are working with local police to catch the dealers and charge them with overdoses linked to their supply -- because just the tiniest dose can take a life.

“If this sweetener packet was fentanyl, it would be enough to cause 50,000 overdoses -- 50,000 people dead,” explained Chad Cook, assistant special agent in charge with the DEA.

He said heroin laced with fentanyl is the most dangerous drug DEA agents deal with.

Cook, who is in charge of the DEA’s Jacksonville office, which covers 36 counties, said his agents are working tirelessly to slow things down, working at the highest level drug dealer to impact the flow of drugs into the state.

“It's bad,” Cook said. “Just because of the addictive nature. It goes back to Florida was the epicenter of the pill mills back a few years ago. Had some very effective laws passed to help shut those down, but you created a whole new class of opioid users.”

To deter dealers supplying those users, agencies are working to charge them when someone dies after taking their drugs. The charge comes with a minimum of 20 years behind bars -- up to a life sentence.

“It's never been on most of these distributors' radar,” Cook said. “If they distribute something and someone dies, they can go to prison.”

The process isn’t easy and can take years to prove, but agents are gearing up for even more of a crackdown.

The drugs are so toxic, agents investigating drug scenes now have to wear airtight hazmat suits -- two of them -- with an oxygen tank to help them breathe. And investigators recently started using lasers to detect the drugs.

“It can penetrate packaging, so it prevents us from actually having to physically handle it,” Cook said.

Stopping the supply is a big priority, but federal agents know that they also have to stop the demand, and they’re starting early, reaching out to students from elementary school to college. 

Cook said he and his colleagues hope to stop the epidemic before it claims any more lives.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.