A bill designed to address the opioid crisis is headed to Trump’s desk, giving law enforcement new weapons to block the flow of drugs. The new legislation targets synthetics as well as heroin and prescription painkillers, but adaptable dealers will undoubtedly try to change their strategies yet again in response.
“Drug dealers are always making adjustments,” Bridget Brennan, New York special narcotics prosecutor, said. “Whenever they perceive that law enforcement is closing in in one way, they move another way.”
Brennan, who has been in her position for twenty years, oversees drug cases for the district attorney’s offices in each of the city’s five boroughs. “What we’re really looking to do, our number one priority is to take the poison off the street,” she said.
Teenaged Lance Barabas, who ran an interstate drug ring along with his older brothers Larry and Landon, their friend Douglas Dodd, and others, is a prime example of an adaptable dealer. The group distributed approximately 150,000 oxycodone pills in a two-year period.
“They were on the verge of making millions,” journalist Guy Lawson said. “They were making tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were making, to kids, infinite amounts of money.”
The boys used their profits to fund parties, cars, booze, and drugs, and they found a ready supply of the drugs in their home state of Florida. As college wrestlers, scoring pills was as simple as faking an injury.
“Florida was ground zero of the prescription pain pill epidemic,” Dodd said. “They were very abundant down here.”
“There was no other state like this. In Florida, there were more pain management clinics than there was McDonald’s,” Landon Barabas recalled in an interview. Of faking injuries to score drugs, he added, “It was like a golden ticket. I went back to my doctor’s…and walked out of there with like 500 pills.”
Kingpin Lance Barabas, now 30, has five years left on his fifteen-year prison sentence. His brothers Larry and Landon were sentenced to seven and six years, respectively. Dodd wrote a book about his experience entitled Generation Oxy: From High School Wrestlers to Pain Pill Kingpins.
The new fentanyl trade works on a much larger scale. “It started with addictive pills, and then we saw the Mexican cartels jumping on America’s enormous appetite for opioids and pushing heroin right across the border and flooding our streets with heroin,” prosecutor Brennan said. “Now we’re seeing fentanyl, which is 50 times more deadly, coming from China then to Mexico and across to the U.S.”
As law enforcement is cracking down on fentanyl exchanges, dealers are becoming more adaptable and the supply chain is changing. “We see Mexico getting the precursor chemicals, the ingredients for fentanyl, manufacturing it itself, and then pushing it right across the border into the U.S.,” Brennan said. She added, “The cartels are really avid businessmen. They have a product. They want to maximize the product and they’re going to do everything they can in order to accomplish that.”
The new fentanyl derivatives, or analogues, are the next step in the chain. Brennan explained, “We are now finding fentanyl mixed in with cocaine, pressed into pills, masquerading as ecstasy, all because it’s so cheap. That’s the business model that drug dealers rely on. Buy low, sell high and create a consumer base that cannot say no.”
“The final opioid package represents a critical component” of the fight against opioid addiction, said Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). “But this should not and will not be the end of Congress’s efforts.”