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How Law Enforcement Should Fight Fentanyl

Bridget G. Brennan

December 13, 2023

A prosecutor explains what has been learned since the crack epidemic.

A prosecutor explains what has been learned since the crack epidemic.

Many view the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s as the most devastating drug epidemic New York City has ever experienced. In 1990, at the height of that epidemic, 541 New Yorkers died of drug overdoses. But it was crack’s close connection with gangs and gun violence that claimed the most lives, as evidenced by the record 2,262 homicides reported in New York City that same year

Now, 30 years later, the fentanyl epidemic is claiming thousands of lives, and this time the drug itself is the killer. In 2022, fentanyl contributed to 81% of the 3,026 drug overdose deaths reported in New York City. That year, the city reported 434 homicides.

In debates about how to curb today’s fentanyl epidemic, the legacy of the law enforcement response to the crack crisis, which resulted in unacceptably high incarceration rates, casts a long shadow. But the strategy of that era was primarily about reducing violence, not the drug supply. Because the shootings and homicides of the 1980s and ’90s often stemmed from the street crack market, low-level dealers were arrested by the thousands and charged with narcotics sales. 

Ultimately, the violence associated with crack was reined in, but this strategy cast too wide a net. Thousands of Black and brown men, many of whom played no role in promoting violence, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. For individuals, families and communities of color, already suffering disproportionately from the violence of the crack trade, the mass incarceration caused significant long-term damage. 

Some fear that a law enforcement response to fentanyl will lead to similar consequences. However, during the past three decades, much has changed. Law enforcement approaches have evolved and become more targeted. Meanwhile, New York State’s drug laws have undergone significant revisions, with mandatory sentences eliminated or reduced. And defendants facing drug charges cannot be held on cash bail, except under limited circumstances. As a result of these changes, the number of drug arrests and drug charges resulting in incarceration has declined precipitously. An analysis of arrests in Manhattan demonstrates a profound change in approach. NYPD felony drug arrests decreased by 93% between 1990 and 2022, falling from 17,442 to 1,613. 

The legacy of the law enforcement response to crack, which resulted in unjustly high incarceration rates, casts a long shadow.

The primary goal of modern fentanyl-focused law enforcement strategies is to save lives and protect the public by preventing access to this deadly substance, and by holding accountable those who profit from its production and distribution. To accomplish these objectives, my office identifies vulnerabilities in the fentanyl supply chain and disrupts open drug markets that have a high correlation with overdoses. We also target schemes that especially endanger vulnerable New Yorkers, like young children who have no ability to avoid exposure, or people who mistakenly buy fentanyl when seeking other substances.

The challenges law enforcement faces in curbing the supply of fentanyl are unique. It is synthetic, made entirely from chemicals. With no growing seasons, no plants to harvest, and no organic products to refine, the timeline for production is short, and the supply is potentially limitless. Its producers are beyond our immediate reach, with component chemicals manufactured in China and the drug itself synthesized in Mexico. The production of counterfeit pharmaceutical pills, with the appearance of legitimate drugs but containing deadly fentanyl, is occurring on a scale never seen before. Finally, the distribution chain includes anonymous sources on the internet. Effective strategies to counter these new challenges and avoid the abuses of the crack era fall into the following broad categories described as follows.

One: Disrupt production and prosecute smuggling operations.

Because the scope of the fentanyl trade is international, the federal government takes the lead in disrupting the supply chain through diplomacy, sanctions and investigations. 

Recent reports indicate that President Joe Biden has reached agreement with China to curb Chinese exports of the chemicals Mexican cartels use to produce fentanyl. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Chinese companies involved in production of fentanyl precursors. Finally, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is focused on bringing prosecutions against the leaders of Mexican cartels who produce and smuggle fentanyl into the U.S. Taken together, these efforts give hope that the spigot of cheap, plentiful fentanyl might eventually be partially closed. 

Within New York, local, state and federal law enforcement work together to curb the supply of fentanyl by prosecuting high-level smuggling organizations with direct ties to the cartels. Notably, the Bronx, with its network of interstate and local highways supplying easy access to warehouse locations, is a frequent destination for fentanyl traveling cross-country from Mexico. Enforcement targeting organizations based in the Bronx and other high-level domestic traffickers prevents hundreds of kilograms of fentanyl from ever reaching our city’s streets. 

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Two: Dismantle fentanyl packaging organizations.

Packaging fentanyl for street sales is a complex and expensive undertaking for regional narcotics traffickers. Fentanyl powder arrives in New York in tightly compressed bricks, but distributors must then repackage it into small, stamped glassine envelopes for sale to users. They often also mix the product with other drugs and adulterants during this packaging process to maximize profits. 

A single packaging operation may produce millions of user-ready doses and may supply local organizations distributing fentanyl across New York and throughout the Eastern U.S. These drug-packaging operations require significant personal connections, resources, access to large amounts of drugs, transportation and real estate. This network of equipment and connections is not easily replicated when the operators are arrested and charged. 

Three: Identify and disrupt online sales of counterfeit pills.

Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl are often purchased online by buyers who believe they are purchasing pharmaceutical drugs. The dangers fentanyl poses to these users is extreme. Cooperation between federal and local agencies is essential to investigating these internet-based distributors, as is enlisting the aid of the social media platforms themselves.

Effective prosecutions of online dealers will not only directly reduce the number of such distributors but will also force remaining dealers to operate more covertly to avoid apprehension. This will make it more difficult for them to contact and recruit new buyers. A prevention campaign on social media and elsewhere on the internet educating the public about the dangers of fentanyl and the proliferation of counterfeit pills is likewise critical to disrupting these especially dangerous sales via social media. 

Persistent drug-selling and open drug usage in parks and playgrounds deprive our children of safe spaces to play and our citizens of opportunities for peaceful enjoyment of their city.

Four: Strategically identify street markets and prosecute drug sales in public places.

A painful commonality between the fentanyl and crack epidemics is the people most acutely affected. Communities of color in the most impoverished areas of New York City suffer the highest rates of death due to overdose. The same communities also bore the brunt of the violence of the crack epidemic — and the law enforcement response to it — in the 1980s and ’90s. New Yorkers residing in these neighborhoods are also most likely to encounter open drug activity, including inside public parks and playgrounds. When persistent drug-selling and visible usage takes over, children are deprived of safe spaces to play and citizens of opportunities for peaceful enjoyment of their city. It is critically important to have open lines of communication with the communities most affected by the fentanyl epidemic, and to respond to the urgent requests for aid from law enforcement.

To accomplish this, my office uses information about recent fatal and nonfatal overdoses to identify hot spots where overdoses are concentrated — then matches this up with police intelligence and community complaints about drug markets, as well as reports of drug-related violence. By focusing on these hot spots, arresting sellers and confiscating their drug supply, we can effectively help those areas most afflicted by the harms of the drug trade. 

Five: Improve cross-disciplinary cooperation and expand the role of the prosecutor.

As part of a breakthrough initiative called RxStat, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies working in New York City now meet regularly with public health experts to share information and strategies specific to combating the fentanyl crisis. This allows for early identification of emerging trends and development of targeted initiatives. 

At the same time, prosecutors are embracing new approaches to sentencing that involve working with judges, defense lawyers, and support and treatment networks. These approaches, aimed at preventing reoffending, include identifying defendants appropriate for sentences involving supervised community-based programming. Such novel, individualized sentences avoid the one-size-fits-all incarceration strategy of prior drug crises. Law enforcement has also taken a more active role in providing educational and informational programs about fentanyl to school and community groups in order to provide accurate, timely information, answer questions and address concerns from the public.

Over the past 30 years, we have learned much about addressing deadly drug crises. Police, prosecutors and others who enforce the laws should aim to save lives and protect the well-being of communities. Targeted law enforcement and smart partnerships will accomplish both.