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Fentanyl symposium brings ‘best and brightest’ to talk opioid crisis

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs from throughout West Virginia gathered at Waterfront Place Hotel and Conference Center in Morgantown Thursday for the West Virginia Fentanyl Symposium, which aimed to identify solutions to the substance abuse crisis raging throughout the country and state.

Top officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Border Patrol were among the speakers at the day-long  event hosted in partnership with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program and United States Attorney’s Offices in the Northern and Southern Districts of West Virginia.

“We’ve got an all-star line up.  Experts across the board,” U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia William Ihlenfeld said.  “Fentanyl is widely available, highly addictive and causing damage to West Virginia unlike any other drug ever has.  It’s critical that we hear from the best and the brightest as we fine-tune our approach to enforcement and prevention.”

“A tragic number of West Virginians are losing their lives to fentanyl-related overdose deaths, devastating families and communities,” said Will Thompson, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. “The West Virginia Fentanyl Symposium provides a valuable opportunity for us to learn from law enforcement, prevention and treatment leaders, and to further sharpen our ‘all hands on deck’ response to the opioid epidemic.”

The symposium opened with speaker Raymond Donovan, chief of operations at the DEA, who oversaw the 2015 operation that resulted in the capture of the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin Guzman-Loera also known as “El Chapo.”  According to Donovan, the Sinaloa Cartel is believed to be responsible for around 70% of the fentanyl brought to the U.S.

Donovan spoke about his experiences and knowledge of Mexican drug cartels and the tools, such as the internet, and tricks, like making fentanyl look like other drugs, the cartels are using to smuggle fentanyl and other drugs into the U.S.  He showed the group maps with known locations of drug cartels within the United States and some of the routes and ways drugs are being transported into the country.

Many of the drugs coming into the state are thought to be coming from a route from Detroit, Mich. Columbus, Ohio, is thought to be a main distribution point near this area and Donovan said is considered a gateway to the northeast.

Cartels and other drug sources are continuously adapting and finding new ways to feed opioids and other substances into the country and are no longer hiding in dark alleys. Drugs are even being sold over social media and delivered by regular mail services like FedEx and U.S. Postal Service. Donovan said a lot of young kids have been dying from fentanyl overdoses and a lot of them thought they were taking some other drug due to dealers disguising fentanyl to look like other prescription medications.  The victims “don’t even know what they are taking,” he said.

Author and award-winning investigative reporter Ben Westhoff was also asked to speak as the author of the first book about the fentanyl pandemic, “Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Created the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.”  His investigative book looks into the industry that has created a worldwide epidemic and new strategies that may help provide more long-term solutions.

To finish out the day, Monongalia County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Morgan and representatives from the Monongalia Quick Response Team (QRT) addressed how community partnerships like the QRT are saving lives in Monongalia County.

The Mon QRT is a collaboration among first responders, public health, peer recovery coaches and other health care and private partners who provide immediate and long-term help to those struggling with substance abuse.

“We are not only going to save lives, which is really the goal, but we are also saving money, saving resources,” said QRT member Joe Klass, “allowing EMS and law enforcement to focus on other priorities.”

Ihlenfeld and Thompson were both pleased with the turnout at the symposium and look to hopefully schedule more in the future.

“We wanted to bring the entire state together to educate them more about fentanyl but also to get them in the same room so they can help educate one another, you know,” said Thompson.  “If there is something working in one community, let’s try to use it in this community.”

Ihlenfeld said many times two separate task forces might be looking for the same person so communication between departments is key.

“It’s important that we share intel, that we deconflict and that we work together,” he said.  “That’s what I think the most important and valuable part of today is.  Bringing all these different groups together so that if they haven’t met, they’ll meet.  If they don’t know about a case they are working on, they’ll learn about it and we’ll do a better job of sharing intelligence.”