National Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week
Contact Person: Beth Drake (803) 929-3000
The United States is in midst of a prescription opioid and heroin epidemic that threatens our communities, families, and children. Heroin use, and the abuse of prescription opioids, has impacted the smallest as well as largest communities in our country. In 2014, over 27,000 lives were lost due to heroin and opioids, representing over half of the drug-related deaths reported in 2014. Also at issue is the recent rise in deaths caused by fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid much stronger than heroin. Recognizing the heartbreaking impact that the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic has had on our country, the Attorney General has designated the week of September 19 as National Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week.
The number of heroin-related overdose deaths increased 244% between 2007 and 2013. The increase in new heroin users and overdose deaths is linked to the overwhelming abuse of prescription opioids. Acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake commented, “When the source of supply dries up, or when the money runs out, in order to feed their addiction, our kids, our cousins and our neighbors are turning from opioid prescription medicines to the cheaper heroin. And quite literally, they are looking death in the face on that first needle or unsourced pill, because increasingly, what is on the streets and available through the internet is laced with the much stronger fentanyl, a drug used to tranquilize zoo animals.” Prescription opioids and heroin are highly addictive and are themselves responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in this country. Four out of five new heroin users previously abused prescription drugs, which is feeding the heroin crisis we are experiencing. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is anywhere from 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin, is here in South Carolina and is responsible for an increasing number of deaths. Fentanyl is so strong that the equivalent of a few grains of sugar can kill someone. Given that it is stronger and more readily accessed because it is synthetic, unscrupulous drug dealers mix fentanyl with heroin or sell it as heroin. Also, these drug dealers are using fentanyl to manufacture counterfeit tablets, pills, and capsules that mimic prescription drugs.
The President has made clear that addressing the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic is a priority for his Administration. The Department of Justice has responded to the growing trend in heroin and prescription opioid abuse with a three-pronged approach consisting of prevention, enforcement, and treatment.
In light of the heroin and opioid crises, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina is committed to reducing the illegal supply of these deadly drugs by working closely with our federal, state and local partners to prosecute the dealers up and down the chain of supply, be they street dealers, corrupt doctors or pharmacists, or internet operations. Because of the staggering increase in the abuse and diversion of prescription opioids, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has stood up a new enforcement group, called the Tactical Diversion Squad, specifically to investigate and remove illegal pharmaceutical traffickers in the state of South Carolina.
The heroin and opioid health care crisis is national in scope, but it is here South Carolina. The United States Attorney’s Office is diligently working with federal and state law enforcement colleagues in an effort to address the real dangers posed by the significant rise in heroin and prescription opioid abuse. Below are a few illustrative examples of how heroin, prescription opioids, and fentanyl are directly impacting our state and how the United States Attorney’s Office, in a joint effort with law enforcement, is working to disrupt and dismantle the criminal organizations that are putting these opiates on our streets.
- In 2013, the DEA’s Charleston Office began an investigation after a significant increase in heroin overdoses, including three deaths, in the Charleston tri-county area. Edward Singleton was identified as a large-scale heroin distributor in Charleston. The DEA conducted several controlled purchases of heroin from Singleton, and through further investigation, learned that Singleton’s major heroin source of supply was Kenneth Shannon. The investigation ultimately culminated in the execution of a search warrant of Shannon’s residence and the seizure of over 130 grams of heroin. As a result of the investigation, federal charges were brought against eleven individuals for their roles in a large-scale conspiracy to distribute heroin. Singleton pled guilty to multiple counts of conspiring to distribute and distributing heroin. On July 29, 2016, following a three-day jury trial, Shannon was convicted of seven counts of unlawfully distributing heroin. Both Singleton and Shannon are awaiting sentencing.
- On January 19, 2016, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina announced an indictment charging multiple individuals, including Dr. Mackie James Walker, Jr., a podiatrist of Aiken, South Carolina, with their roles in a conspiracy to illegally distribute oxycodone, a powerful opioid based painkiller. The investigation began due to the large amounts of oxycodone being illegally distributed in and around Aiken. Throughout the investigation, agents learned that Dr. Walker was selling prescriptions to addicts and drug traffickers for up to $1,000 per prescription, and that one of the individuals who received a prescription for oxycodone from Dr. Walker died of an overdose. Evidence obtained throughout the investigation showed that Dr. Walker relied upon others to recruit dozens of individuals to come to his practice and purchase prescriptions of oxycodone. After analyzing text messages, prescription data, and statements from Dr. Walker’s coconspirators, agents determined that, from 2013 to 2015, Dr. Walker wrote illegal prescriptions for 51,580 oxycodone pills. In total, thirteen individuals were indicted for conspiring to illegally distribute oxycodone. On August 17, 2016, Dr. Walker pled guilty to federal drug charges and is awaiting sentencing.
- In January 2016, the DEA and FBI, in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies, began investigating the escalation of heroin distribution plaguing Myrtle Beach and surrounding areas following more than twenty heroin overdose deaths. Initial lab results related to the deaths suggested that pure fentanyl had been substituted for, or mixed with, heroin and sold to drug addicts. The investigation led agents to a significant drug trafficking organization that, at times, would conduct up to forty drug transactions in a five hour period. In March 2016, federal and local law enforcement initiated various enforcement actions, including arrest and search warrants on various targets associated with the drug trafficking organization. Agents seized pure fentanyl, heroin, multiple firearms, and approximately $80,000 in cash from storage units associated with the drug trafficking organization. In the weeks and months following the investigation and dismantlement of the drug network operating out of the Myrtle Beach area, the number of heroin-related overdose deaths in the Myrtle Beach area significantly declined. To increase coordination and cooperation between the United States Attorney’s Office and state prosecutors, the United States Attorney’s Office designated two state prosecutors as Special United States Attorneys.
- Federal prosecutors and agents currently are working with state and local law enforcement in Greenville, South Carolina following the significant rise in overdoses and deaths related to heroin and fentanyl users. Field reports reveal that, in 2015, there were a total of forty-one heroin/fentanyl related overdose deaths in Greenville County, compared to eleven homicides.
The Greenville Police Department and the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office solicited the assistance of the DEA in an effort to identify and dismantle organizations associated with the distribution of heroin and fentanyl within Greenville. In response, the DEA has opened multiple different investigations that target mid-level heroin dealers in Greenville.
“In order to short-circuit the problem, we are all going to have to work together. Parents, when a physician lawfully prescribes your child an opiate after a football injury or dental surgery, supervise your child’s taking the medicine, and if there are any dosage units remaining, dispose of them at a take-back center. Also, to all parents, youth groups and mentors, review the movie “Chasing the Dragon,” available on the DEA and FBI web sites, to see if it is age-appropriate for your children. The short film is a compelling, true-life rendition of how opiate abuse cuts across the lines of age, race, gender and wealth. Physicians, prescribe the minimum number of opiate pills appropriate in your judgment, even if it means that the patient is going to have to refill. That bathroom medicine cabinet is in many cases the first introduction to abuse of opiates. Pharmacists, if you suspect a prescription is fraudulent, call law enforcement. We as ordinary Americans can make a difference. In the meantime, you can be assured that your Federal and State officials, from the legislator to the agency administrator to the law enforcement officer, are working to tighten the noose on the illegal source of supply and provide greater treatment options for those who have succumbed to the addiction,” said Acting USA Beth Drake.