Prosecutors in Utah have indicted 24 people for drug trafficking after police in April intercepted 41 pounds of methamphetamine headed for Salt Lake County. Separately, federal agents recently moved to seize the assets of a well-financed cartel believed responsible for a large amount of the heroin smuggled into Salt Lake City. The two cases represent good news in the ongoing battle to disrupt the international drug pipeline, but they also show how difficult the task of curbing the supply of dangerous narcotics has become.
We have moved in recent years to become more appropriately focused on the demand side of the drug problem — emphasizing the need for treatment and diversion programs as opposed to incarceration. This is a positive trend, and Utah must continue to do more especially with mental health and homelessness as they relate to drug addiction and self-medication. Yet local and federal efforts to control the supply of drugs are equally important. A roundtable discussion recently among diplomats and international drug enforcement officials meeting at the United Nations included details of how sophisticated the network of illicit drug production and distribution has become. Despite billions of dollars spent to bring down the drug cartels, they are supplying more drugs to more people than ever before.
Traffickers employ vast and intricate channels for shipping drugs overseas and domestically. The U.N. says illicit drugs are available virtually everywhere and that 1 in 20 people are regular users. In Utah, as across the U.S., opioid abuse has become a public health crisis. While addiction may begin with abuse of prescription painkillers, it often ends up involving use of heroin acquired on the streets. In addition to policies to treat and deter those who seek the drugs, there is a strong need for an aggressive posture against those who supply them.
There has been increasing sentiment as to the futility of the war on drugs which resulted in higher sentencing that over decades has caused crowded prisons and little diminishment in the supply of drugs on the street. The need for strong investigative and enforcement policies aimed at the supply chain is therefore more important than ever.
Suppliers were not deterred by decades of stringent, minimum-mandatory prison sentencing for users and midlevel dealers. That, however, does not diminish the importance of the concerted efforts by police to stem the tide of incoming narcotics. The methamphetamine bust by the Utah Highway Patrol certainly disrupted the supply to users. The UHP and other agencies have also recently been able to intercept large amounts of counterfeit opioid pills and heroin destined for Utah’s underground markets.
Those efforts must continue, not in lieu of deterence, treatment and rehabilitation efforts, but in tandem. The battle against opioid addiction must be fought on two fronts, supply and demand, and the agencies responsible for apprehending traffickers deserve praise for what they’ve been able to do and the public must continue to provide support for doing even more.