A new effort in Maryland to prosecute more fentanyl cases in federal court is designed to help combat an alarming increase of fatalities caused by the potent synthetic opioid that's fueling the deadliest overdose epidemic in U.S. history.
Fentanyl — a synthetic opioid both cheap to produce and up to 50 times more powerful than heroin — was the driving force behind Maryland's all-time high number of drug fatalities last year, rising from 1,119 in 2016 to 1,594 in 2017. But this year's projected total exceeds 2,000 deaths from fentanyl, a 25 percent increase from last year's grim milestone.
To stem the surge in a state that already had one of the country's most severe opioid overdose mortality rates, U.S. Attorney for Maryland Robert Hur said "every single arrest" made by Baltimore police involving fentanyl distribution will now be jointly reviewed by U.S., state and city authorities to determine if they can be handled in the federal system.
Federal time includes stiffer sentences, no parole, no suspended sentences and terms in prisons frequently far from home.
"I want word to get out far and wide: If you choose to sell fentanyl on the streets, then you run the very real risk of federal time," Hur said at a news conference in downtown Baltimore.
There's no shortage of people selling fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs on the streets of Baltimore, where the large majority of Maryland's opioid deaths have occurred. Just this month, three Maryland men were indicted in federal court on charges they were involved in a conspiracy to distribute 400 grams of fentanyl trafficked by a group with ties to Mexican drug cartels.
Todd Edwards, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Baltimore district office, said fentanyl has become so ubiquitous that it's showing up in laced cocaine, marijuana and counterfeit prescription pills.
"You are actually seeing fentanyl coming into every single part of the drug war," Edwards said.
The escalation in fentanyl fatalities comes as the hard-hit state is actually starting to see evidence of a dip in deadly heroin overdoses. Patrick Jennings, a prosecutor with the state's attorney's office in Baltimore, said "it's very rare that we see heroin anymore."
Baltimore's interim police commissioner, Gary Tuggle, described the new collaborative effort as a strategic tool that will allow authorities to go after "the worst of the worst" — not small-time, nonviolent offenders.
The DEA has said China is a main source of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that have been flooding the U.S. market. The agency's National Drug Threat Assessment, released in early November, shows that heroin, fentanyl and other opioids continue to be the highest drug threat in the nation.