Facing Fentanyl: How the criminal justice system is responding

May 15, 2023, 6:50 AM | Updated: 3:50 pm

seattle police recruitment...

Seattle Police recruitment efforts have not gotten as many officers as planned (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

Drug cartels and their dealers are unleashing a veritable firehose of deadly fentanyl on the U.S.

As the series “Facing Fentanyl” continues, KIRO Newsradio’s Heather Bosch looks at the role of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in fighting the epidemic.

Listen to Part Five of “Facing Fentanyl” here:

In Seattle, Acting Special Agent in Charge Jacob Galvan said this spring, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and local law enforcement broke up an active operation in Washington state.

“Our combined efforts in this investigation seized enough fentanyl to kill everyone who lives in the city of Tacoma, the city of Seattle, and have enough lethal doses leftover to poison an additional 500,000 individuals within the Puget Sound Region,” Galvan said.

Galvan said about six out of every 10 pills they seize contain a potentially deadly dose, stating illegal fentanyl is coming from Mexico and is made with chemicals from China.

“China has the ability to produce all these chemicals. Those chemicals are shipped to Mexico,” Galvan said. “The cartels take possession of the precursor chemicals and they’re the ones that are making the fake Oxycontin pills, [fake] Adderall, and fake Xanax pills.”

K-9 passes out after fentanyl-involved drug bust in Everett

He said the pills all look legitimate, but unless you’re getting a prescription pill from your doctor or pharmacist, you are likely getting fentanyl, whether you’re looking for it or not.

To fight this deadly drug once it hits the streets, local law enforcement is concentrating on alleged dealers.

But people, like a man who told KIRO Newsradio’s Heather Bosch that he does “drugs on the street,” are largely left alone unless they’re deemed an immediate threat to themselves or others. He was among a group of people just up the street from where Bosch spoke with Seattle police officer Judinna Gulpan.

“So this area here, between Pine Street and Pike Street, it’s a known area for quite a bit of narcotics activity,” Gulpan said.

Gulpan stated officers will usually contact people who are using, confiscate their drugs and paraphernalia, do a records check, and then refer them to services.

“We are still seeing people that we’ve contacted that are in services still out here on the streets still using narcotics,” she said, admitting it sometimes feels like the movie Groundhog Day. “You know we’re contacting the same person or we’re addressing the same issue. But it’s something we’re going to continue to do until we figure out a better way.”

Kathy Lee is among those demanding a better way.

“We have a clear drug crisis,” Lee said.

Lee is the president of the museum quality arts shop, Fossil and Stone, across the street from where Bosch spoke with Officer Gulpan.

“I observe dirty pieces of foil all over the city,” she said. “I see syringes, umbrellas where people are hiding and doing drugs — sometimes not even hiding at all.”

Critics said public drug use decreases safety, deters shopping and other business, and increases crime.

“We had a couple grab-and-runs and break-ins, our window has been shot out with guns. A car has driven through the front door deliberately. It’s been quite a year,” Lee said, agreeing with the rise in crime residents are seeing.

1-year-old may have died due to fentanyl exposure

Several of the businesses next to hers have closed in response. Their windows and doors have been boarded up in the heart of the city.

Back up the street, a group of people are still using drugs. When asked if they knew that six out of 10 doses of fentanyl are potentially deadly, one replied, “It’s extremely addictive. It’s almost impossible to get off of once you start it.

“People have almost died or have actually literally died and (were) brought back to life and they are still on it.”

It’s so addictive that most versions of a new drug possession law state legislators are considering would offer treatment for opioid use disorder and require jail time for those who refuse it. Some plans would also ban the public use of illicit drugs. Opponents said doing that would only move, not solve, the fentanyl crisis.

But Seattle-King County Public Health Dr. Faisal Khan recently made clear what’s at stake if we don’t reign in the fentanyl epidemic.

“The Medical Examiner’s office is now struggling with the issue of storing bodies because the fentanyl-related death toll continues to climb,” Khan said in January.

One thousand people died from overdoses in King County, alone, in 2022, and the county is on pace to surpass that number in 2023.

More from the Facing Fentanyl series

Part 1 Facing Fentanyl: Hear the voices of people hurting

Part 2 Facing Fentanyl: Addiction in pregnancy ‘ruins multiple lives’

Part 3 Facing Fentanyl: How a synthetic opioid became the deadliest drug in America

Part 4 Facing Fentanyl: People who use fentanyl find a way out

Follow Heather Bosch on Twitter or email her here

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Facing Fentanyl: How the criminal justice system is responding