Like everything else it touches, the internet has revolutionized drug dealing. Anyone with an internet connection can buy enough black-market fentanyl to kill off a small town—including federal law enforcement, whose strategy for stemming the flow of the killer opioid into the United States and slowing the tide of fatal overdoses is doing just that.
But since there are many, many more fentanyl buyers and sellers than there are police, it’s slow, slow going.
Newsweek brings us the story of a recent bust of an Ohio couple, who are accused of buying fentanyl on dark web drug marketplaces and redistributing it around the country. Since May, a federal task force has been making undercover buys from websites offering such deals as “100mg of Fentanyl HCL 98% purity $105+35 for Express-1 days shipping,” and hoping that some fentanyl reseller would be brazen (or dumb) enough to leave a sufficient trail for cops to follow and be found out.
In this case, cops ordered some fentanyl on May 30. When it showed up via U.S. Express Mail, the package had a return name and address in Newport, Kentucky. A postal inspector examined the package, and found that four other packages sent from another area post office had the same name and return address.
Even that might not have been enough for cops to make a bust.
The case appears to have hinged on a local postal inspector’s knowledge that one of his customers, James Halpin of Cincinnati, “regularly received international mail and regularly sent mail to addresses all over the U.S.,” according to Newsweek.
This is the age of globalism and global e-commerce, so behavior patterns that could apply to, say, a computer parts importer or a reseller of bongs cheaply made overseas could also apply to a fentanyl dealer.
Halpin’s misstep, apparently, was twofold: Receiving a package from Montreal sent to his address under a fake name, and having his partner, Grace Bosworth, fill out mailing labels by hand. Similar handwriting was found on several other suspicious packages.
Cops obtained a search warrant for the package addressed to Halpin’s home under the fake name and found fentanyl and carfentanil, the elephant tranquiler that’s even more powerful than the super strong and deadly fentanyl. After Halpin came back to the same post office to pick up that package and mail out three other packages—including one to the undercover cop who made his purchase on the dark web—he was arrested.
The problem with this bust is how long it took to shut down one operator—and the simple fact that there is already too much fentanyl in America for anyone to know what to do with.
“Fentanyl, now, is being sold as heroin in virtually every corner of our country,” said Jack Riley, the DEA’s deputy administrator, in a recent News You Can Use-style video. “It’s produced clandestinely in Mexico and comes directly from China.”
Hitting on both of the convenient populist bogeymen for the Trump era was a nice touch, but Riley is not wrong.
As much as 80 percent of the fentanyl brought in by drug users for testing at a Vancouver, Canada safe-injection site tested positive for fentanyl. And in New York City, where the opioid overdose crisis has not yet reached the same pitch as it has in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or other areas of the American industrial heartland, fentanyl is also popping up in the cocaine supply, health officials recently warned.
The thing about fentanyl is that drug users don’t want it.
At the Vancouver site, once users found out their supply was tainted, they were 10 times more likely to cut their dose and 25 percent less likely to overdose, researchers there said.
The problem is that there is simply too much fentanyl coming into the country from too many sources, and it is beyond obvious that law enforcement doesn’t have a handle on the problem.
Since federal cops busted and shut down the Silk Road online marketplace in 2013, multiple imitators have popped up. As the New York Times recently reported, AlphaBay, the top Silk Road 2.0, had thousands of listings for fentanyl available. Just six users identified by the newspaper, including two who are still in operation, are responsible for tens of thousands of fentanyl sales.
So. The police could spend time and resources pursuing single end-user recipients like Bosworth and Halpin. Or they could go to the sources overseas.
Or they could acknowledge that the opioid epidemic’s deadly turn was a question of supply—and admit that maybe, for now, giving drug users information about what they’re injecting could be the best way to save lives.