By Dayna Drake
Drug trafficking fuels the epidemic of drug abuse and addiction in Mississippi, while endangering the safety and security of communities statewide.
The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics reported in 2020 that narcotics officers seized almost 2,000 pounds of various narcotics worth almost $1.5 million. While the new reports are not public, Captain John Harless of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Hattiesburg Division said drug statistics increased when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“There are absolutely drug traffickers that know they’re selling things that are killing people,” said Harless. “There are drug traffickers that know they’re selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals that have federalism and they almost pride themselves on people dying.”
The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics reports, “the illicit drug market in the United States is one of the most profitable in the world. As such, it attracts the most ruthless, sophisticated, and aggressive drug traffickers. The State of Mississippi, which lies along the Gulf of Mexico with multiple interstates running through it, is experiencing what may be determined as a struggle that is unwinnable.”
Mississippi’s spot on the map makes it a hub for drug trafficking, with the most common drugs coming in the state being marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and in increasing presence of illicit fentanyl.
The state has an elaborate system of interstate highways, major thoroughfares and railways that make traveling throughout the state a breeze. With four major interstates and nine major highways, the roads of Mississippi indicate patterns of drug trafficking to the entire country.
According to Steven Maxwell, Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, “Mississippi is a main connect for not only the southeastern part of the United States but the United States as a whole as it relates to drug trafficking.”
Based on a 2020 Drug Threat Assessment, the major trafficking routes include I-55, which stretches the entire length of the state connecting the Gulf Coast to Chicago, I-20 which runs the width of the state and continues from the West Coast to East Coast, I-59 which intersects with I-10 in Louisiana and I-69 which was deemed NAFTA Superhighway as it has connecting segments from the Mexican border to Canada and everything in between.
In July of 2020, trade and traffic with Mexico increased significantly as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was adopted to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Along with this new trade deal came increased drug trafficking from the Mexican cartel through Mississippi roads.
According to the 2020 Drug Enforcement Agency National Drug Threat Assessment, “Mexican TCOs are the greatest drug trafficking threat…[they] have established varied transportation routes, have advanced communications capabilities, and hold strong affiliations with criminal groups and gangs in the United States.”
On a normal day in previous years, narcotics officers might expect to see methamphetamine, marijuana and oxycodone while patrolling these major trafficking routes. Now, a new illicit narcotic has been brought into the mix — fentanyl.
“With the decrease in availability of prescription opiates and the Mexican Cartels flooding Mississippi with heroin and fentanyl, these two powerful drugs have been escalating in Mississippi,” said Maxwell in the March 2020 Drug Threat Assessment.
The powerful synthetic opioid was first developed in 1959 and introduced in the 1960s with legal manufacturing and distribution in the United States. However, in recent years the drug is no longer just in medical facilities, but can be found on the street referred to as Apache, China Girl, China Town, Great Bear and more, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“The Chinese chemical factories started making fentanyl and selling it to the Mexican cartels,” said Harless. “The cartels have more recently started bringing the chemist over and opening their own laboratories in Mexico because the profit margin is greater if you take that whole transportation piece out.”
Illicit fentanyl itself is 80 to 100 times the potency of morphine. In a pure form, the drug is used for hospice patients in the form of a pain patch or by an anesthesiologist to put a patient under. There are multiple different isomers of the drug, including carfentanil which has been deemed the granddaddy of fentanyl.
“Carfentanil has a potency of about 10,000 times that of morphine,” said Harless. “It’s used for one thing legitimately and that’s as a large animal tranquilizer. If we go to the zoo in New Orleans and they need to put the elephant asleep, they use microgram doses of carfentanil. And that’s what we’re seeing on the streets are drugs like this.”
The presence of this highly addictive and potent drug on the streets is not the scariest part — it is the fact that many drug dealers and traffickers are lacing their more expensive drugs with fentanyl to save a penny here and there.
According to Statistica.com, a kilogram of fentanyl valued at $80,000 can yield profits of 1.6 million for drug trafficking organizations making fentanyl approximately 20 times more profitable than heroin.
“Overdose deaths related to heroin and heroin combined with fentanyl continue to rise with fentanyl deaths exceeding heroin deaths,” said Maxwell. “This is a result of drug cartels cutting heroin with fentanyl to maximize their profits at the expense of the consumer.”
Waynesboro, Mississippi lies about sixty miles from Hattiesburg and narcotic officers, such as Wayne County K-9 Officer Geoff Paton and his team, are seeing the same drug trends as the rest of the state.
“The main thing that concerns us is fentanyl,” said Paton. “People are dying from it. It’s just that much stronger…that stuff is strong.”
Fentanyl is so potent that it can be absorbed into the body through inhalation, oral exposure, ingesting or even through the skin. Paton shared an article he read regarding a fentanyl investigation in New York.
“New York SWAT team goes in to raid a house,” said Paton. “SWAT team drops like flies and come to find out that the dope dealers’ house had been doused with fentanyl. So, everything that the SWAT team was touching was absorbed through their skin and they were OD’ing [overdosing].”
The Wayne County narcotics officers have personal protective equipment, including protective gloves and gear that are necessary when heading to any fentanyl case. A key member of the team is Jagger, Paton’s K-9, who specializes in sniffing out illegal substances, but there’s only so much protection a drug dog can have in this type of investigation.
“It’d be a sad day if something happened and Jagger got into some fentanyl or sniffed some fentanyl up his nasal cavities,” said Paton. “We take extra precaution as far as dealing with [fentanyl], especially searching houses and cars because we know what fentanyl does and what the outcome can lead to.”
The increasing presence of fentanyl has not only made officers’ day-to-day job more difficult but made the overall task of drug trafficking a challenge. The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics is focused on budgetary concerns, resource availability and lack of manpower that impair a full-scale effort to intercept drug trafficking on Mississippi highways. According to Harless, more manpower always helps, but you must look at what the existing manpower is focused on.
“If the priority is street level drugs and users like most agencies, there will never be enough manpower,” said Harless. “Agencies that focus on large dealers have the ability to do a lot of good with fewer people.”