SALT LAKE CITY — In the course of six months, the Metro Narcotics Task Force confiscated the equivalent of 24 years' worth of heroin destined for Salt Lake's streets.
The task force — comprised of nine local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Salt Lake office — arrested 21 people and seized 31 pounds of heroin worth $5 million between February and mid-August, drug enforcement officials said Thursday.
As a perspective, the common street dose of heroin is 1/10 of a gram and a single-hit balloon costs between $10 and $20.
An enlarged map at the DEA's Salt Lake office, 348 E. South Temple, shows the locations of crimes in Salt Lake City, West Valley City, West Jordan, South Jordan and Sandy related to the heroin bust. Pictures from the raid show how heroin was hidden in shoe insoles and vehicle cup holders.
In the past, busts in the Salt Lake Valley were on a smaller scale, targeting users and small distributors, said Nicki Hollman, special agent in charge of the DEA's Salt Lake office. It took an average of eight years to confiscate roughly 10 pounds of heroin. Most busts of large distributors in Utah are seized in 5-pound batches. By comparison, the recent busts brought in 31 pounds.
But according to West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo, this is just the beginning.
"To say that this one seizure, this one case, has put a substantial dent in the narcotics trafficking network — absolutely not. We’re celebrating a small success here today, but the problem continues,” he said. “We took one out today. Tomorrow there’s probably going to be two more.”
The task force was created in 1993. Its goal was to identify and disrupt drug trafficking organizations, with a recent focus on disrupting heroin distribution.
"The demand for heroin is a significant public health crisis as prescription addicts seek a cheaper and more available drug in order to satisfy their addictions," Hollmann said.
The most recent raid was part of the task force's efforts to target and arrest distributors who prey on the addicted. In order to eliminate the crisis, the task force — which includes Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes — is calling for a communitywide holistic approach.
“We're not going to be able to arrest our way out of this. We’re not going to be able to simply prosecute our way out of this," Gill said. "This is something that needs to have a multi-faceted, collaborative partnership between treatment, between interdiction and most importantly, the disruption of those who would profit off the addictions of others and exploit (those) addictions. Those are the real problems and this task force really goes to the heart of that matter.”
This includes educating judges, the community and prosecutors to avoid making what Gill calls the "emotional" decision to put an addict in jail. Rather, they should follow "data-driven and research based" practices of finding treatment for the addicted to reduce the rates of recidivism.
Crimes such as vehicle and burglary thefts are often connected to those who are trying to get money to fund their heroin addiction, Burbank said. His agency recently found that 88 percent of bank robbery suspects are addicted to heroin.
"This is an epidemic that we must do something about," he said. “Until we stem the desire, the demand for product within the United States, within our own city and state, somebody will always fill that need. There is too much money to be made.”
The street value of heroin has gone up, Hollmann said, which means people may begin looking for cheaper alternatives. They can't, however, get the same high that the drug provides, she said.
Burbank admitted that there may be an uptick of crime as people try to get money to buy heroin. "You can't just turn a heroin addiction off," he said.
He thinks that the police presence from the newly formed Metro Support Unit in Salt Lake City will help matters. This heroin epidemic is something he said law enforcement and the community created by cracking down on prescription and opiate abuse. Although the bust is a "significant seizure," more is likely on its way, he said.
“They’re bringing more in right now in order to meet the demand that’s here and we all, we society are the ones who are driving that demand. We need to change that.”
The bust was part of a "sophisticated criminal organization (that is) all interconnected," Hollmann said. "That's why we're using a multi-pronged prosecution to go after them."
Cartel leadership will likely determine whether to resupply in the Salt Lake area because the recent bust showed the drugs may get confiscated, she said.
“Drug trafficking organizations are sophisticated. Never underestimate them. They’re essentially violent and they are in it for profit,” Hollmann said. “Here in Utah this is a true public health issue and it is a public safety issue.”
The task force's work is part of what will disrupt narcotic trafficking throughout the state, Reyes said.
“So long as heroin is readily available it will continue to be the drug of choice in our community and to the many prescription drug abusers as the cheaper and more readily available alternative to prescription abuse," he said. "We feel very strongly, we cannot let our guard down. We must continue to be diligent in eradicating and fighting the prevalence of heroin in our communities."