New laws aimed to curb illegal trafficking

CAMPBELL COUNTY, TN. (WLAF)- As legislators work to enact laws to combat drug trafficking, law enforcement is working to keep the dealers at bay. Both sides acknowledge the danger of the situation noting that on some days, their best efforts aren’t enough.

During the last session of the Tennessee Legislature two bills were passed that will increase penalties for those trafficking in specific dangerous drugs.

The first, xylazine also known by its brand name Rompun, is a tranquilizer manufactured for use by veterinarians.

“This is a daily used drug in our practice,” said Dr. Mark Garrett of the Animal Hospital of Campbell County. Manufactured by only a few companies, the drug is making its way into the addiction culture with deadly results, because it is Narcan resistant.

State Rep. Dennis Powers was working on a bill to increase penalties for Fentanyl traffickers when he learned of xylazine. While the sedative, known as “Tranq” or the “Zombie Drug,” is safe when used by veterinarians in their practice, in the wrong hands it can turn deadly. Nine xylazine deaths occurred in the Tennessee last year, according to Powers.

The powerful sedative is currently a legend drug meaning a prescription is needed to access it, but it is not yet a controlled substance.

“The American Veterinarian Medical Association is lobbying for xylazine to be made a controlled substance,” Garrett said. He believes making the drug a controlled substance is vital in keeping it available for use by veterinarians. “It has been used for many, many years,” he said underscoring its value in helping animals

This powerful animal sedative is making its way into the addiction culture.

Xylazine is being mixed with Fentanyl, Heroin and other drugs to increase users “euphoric high,” according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) website.

“Mixing it with other drugs also “extends the high,” Garrett said.

Xylazine users also face dangerous side effects when using the drug. Because xylazine is not an opioid, Narcan, the drug administered to combat an opioid overdose, does not work. This can lead to confusion for first responders thus wasting diagnostic time.

Use of xylazine can also lead to amnesia and necrosis, the rotting of the flesh, according to the DEA. If a user does not die from abusing xylazine, they can face amputation of limbs.

Routine toxicology screens do not detect xylazine, and additional analytical techniques are required to detect xylazine when it might be involved in illicit drug overdoses, particularly when there are other signs or symptoms of xylazine exposure, the FDA said.

In 2022, 23 percent of the Fentanyl powder seized was laced with xylazine while seven percent of the Fentanyl pills seized were also laced with xylazine. In 48 of the 50 states, law enforcement has seized xylazine from individuals not licensed to have it, the DEA said. The Northeastern part of the country is seeing the highest spike in its use.

“Locally, police have not come across the drug “that they are aware of,” said Campbell County Sheriff’s Lt. Gary Jeffers. “That’s a pretty new one,” he said of the sedative.

Under the bill sponsored by Powers, those who illegally possess xylazine will face stiffer penalties. They can be charged with either a class B or C felony for possessing .5 grams. The difference in the charge will be determined by law enforcement following an investigation as to if the accused had it for personal use or to resale.

A Class C conviction carries a sentencing range of three to 15 years while a class B carries eight to 30 years.

Fentanyl continues to pose problems for authorities

Those convicted of illegally possessing Fentanyl will also face harsher penalties under a new law. This bill, co-sponsored by Powers, lowers the amount needed to constitute a trafficking charge. The “One Pill Will Kill,” law decreases the amount needed for a trafficking charge from 15 grams to .5 grams, he said.

“A half a gram will kill you,” Powers said of Fentanyl. Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the FDA for pain relief and as an anesthetic. It is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than Heroin as an analgesic, according to the DEA.

Through his sponsorship of both the bills, Powers heard stories of people who died from overdoses because they were given drugs laced with both of the powerful substances. “It just tears your heart out,” he said.

Under the law, possession of Fentanyl is classified as either a Class B or C felony depending on the intended use of the drug.

While local law enforcement has not been faced with xylazine yet, Fentanyl is a drug they are all too familiar with.

“I can’t tell you the times we thought we were buying Heroin, but it was Fentanyl,” Jeffers said.

Law enforcement is finding a ‘point’ of Heroin like this is often laced with fentanyl.

“The reason behind this is simple economics. A kilo of heroin can be purchased then cut with Fentanyl turning a $5,000 investment into $40,000,” said Campbell County Sheriff Wayne Barton.

“When dealers are mixing the drugs, precision is not the goal,” Jeffers said. Their method is to mix all of the drugs together without measuring anything then put their product in small baggies. Each “point” as they are referred to can have varying combinations of the drugs. That is why users can buy from the same batch and have differing effects. It is also why some die.

But when addicts are looking for a high, precision of the compound doesn’t matter. What matters is cost. As recent as two years ago, Jeffers said undercover officers could purchase an 80 milligram oxymorphone in LaFollette for $200. A tenth of a gram of heroin can deliver the same high for $40.

CCSO officials think that roughly 10 pounds of heroin is brought into the county weekly.

Barton is not optimistic the new laws will help curb the epidemic.

“We can’t legislate our way out of this problem,” he said. “What we are doing is not working.”

He believes efforts should be applied to the front end of the problem- catching the drugs before they hit the streets.

To this end, the CCSO is considering purchasing an MX908, a field device that would deliver real time results of a drug analysis. The machine, which comes in at a $98,000 price tag, would generate real time results of substances seized during arrests, according to the MX908 website. “These results would still need TBI certification but that could come quicker than the 12- 18 months backlog the lab currently has,” said Jeffers. The device also comes with a yearly maintenance contract that includes updates for the device.

Purchasing a MX908 could “speed up drug cases,” Jeffers said of the time it takes to prosecute a case. 

“The more evidence gathered in a case, the hope is there for a quicker plea,” Barton said.

It is a funding dilemma for the CCSO.

“We can buy two cars fully equipped and have money left over for what that machine costs,” Barton said. The only way to purchase an MX908 is if the county was to secure a grant, the sheriff said.

Currently, the CCSO is using what resources it has to combat the Fentanyl epidemic.

When undercover officers purchase drugs, they do so in pairs for safety reasons. They carry Narcan in case of accidental exposure and they rely on the community for information.

“We want people to keep their eyes and ears open. Let us know if something is suspicious,” Barton said. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED 5/10/2023- 6AM)