By Deepti Govind
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), along with its law enforcement partners, said it removed nearly 745,000 lbs of unneeded prescriptions from medicine cabinets across the country under its National Prescription Drug Take Back Day program, which was held on Oct. 23. The program is part of the DEA’s efforts to stem the nation’s opioid epidemic. Since its inception until the most recent Take Back Day, the DEA has removed over 15.2 million lbs of medication from circulation.
On the same day as the DEA announcement, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) announced funding of $44.5 million to support state-level law enforcement agencies in combating the illegal manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine, heroin, and prescription opioids. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), meanwhile, reiterated the multi-agency, coordinated international efforts involved in Operation Dark HunTor.
Why are these efforts more crucial than, perhaps, ever before? The nation’s drug abuse crisis is worsening per recent statistics, and reports of people being charged — including former physicians — for illegal distribution of opioids and other drug crimes are becoming a regular feature. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2020, marking the largest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded in a year. Aditionally, opioid-related deaths accounted for 75% of all overdose deaths last year.
While the fact that the nation is suffering from an illegal opioid epidemic is not new, a recent report published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) takes it further by assessing the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the crisis.
The pandemic adversely impacted mental health, including by exacerbating the use of alcohol or drugs among people who had used drugs in the past year, according to SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). It is estimated that 25.9 million past-year users of alcohol and 10.9 million past-year users of drugs other than alcohol reported they were using these substances “a little more or much more” than they did before the pandemic began, SAMHSA’s report adds.
To begin with, a majority of people who misused a prescription medication are said to have obtained the medicine from a family member or friend, the SAMHSA report says. That’s where programs like the DEA’s Take Back Day come in. “Take Back Day is a critical effort to curb the historic surge in U.S. overdoses. We know prevention starts at home. The simple step of clearing out medications that are no longer needed makes our homes safer, prevents prescription drug misuse, and, ultimately, can help save lives,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement.
The DEA’s most recent Take Back Day involved close to 5,000 collection sites nationwide, and the coming together of more than 4,200 state and local law enforcement partners to help the public rid their homes of unneeded medications that too often become a gateway to addiction. Last month, the DEA also issued a Public Safety Alert and launched the One Pill Can Kill public awareness campaign to warn Americans of a surge in deadly, fake prescription pills driven by drug traffickers.
Criminal drug networks are shipping chemicals from China to Mexico where they are converted to dangerous substances like fentanyl and methamphetamine and then pressed into pills, the DEA said.
“The end result—deadly, fake prescription pills—are what these criminal drug networks make and market to prey on Americans for profit. These fake, deadly pills are widely available and deadlier than ever. Fake pills are designed to appear nearly identical to legitimate prescriptions such as Oxycontin®, Percocet®, Vicodin®, Adderall®, Xanax® and other medicines. Criminal drug networks are selling these pills through social media, e-commerce, the dark web and existing distribution networks,” it added.
That’s where operations like Dark HunTor help. Last week, Biometrica wrote about the results of this massive 10-month operation: It led to over 150 arrests across the world and the seizure of 45 weapons, 234 kgs of drugs, and over $31 million in cash and virtual currencies. Around 65 of the arrests were carried out in the U.S. It is the largest and most successful operation the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) has ever run, according to the DOJ.
It is rooted in the takedown of the website DarkMarket by German authorities earlier this year, in January. At the time, DarkMarket was the largest illegal marketplace on the darkweb. During that process, officials seized the site’s infrastructure, which proved to be a treasure trove of evidence. “Illicit darkweb marketplaces represent a significant threat to public health, economic, and national security,” ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson said in a statement.