Special Narcotics Corner – COVID’s Impact on Narcotics Trends

Empire State Prosecutor Magazine
By Bridget G. Brennan
Special Narcotics Prosecutor
Office of Special Narcotics

As we approach eight months into the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are developing greater insight into how the pandemic has reshaped nearly every aspect of our society. The world of narcotics trafficking is no exception. It has been affected in a variety of ways – some beneficial, but others extremely worrying. I will share some of our observations, particularly those that directly relate to our work as prosecutors in New York.

First, some good news. The unprecedented restrictions on interstate and international travel, imposed to limit the geographic spread of the coronavirus, have also hampered the ability of international narcotics trafficking organizations to bring their poisons to New York. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) New York Division, whose area of responsibility covers our entire state, has observed that the restrictions on land travel across the southwest border of the United States have disrupted the ability of Mexican cartels to send narcotics to New York by both commercial and personal automobiles. Similarly, the cancellation of many international flights and the reduced number of airline passengers have hurt the ability of Colombian and Caribbean based organizations to move drugs to New York by air.

As a result, the DEA has seen a noticeable reduction in the volume of illegal drugs reaching New York, which in turn has led to significant wholesale price increases. The most dramatic impact has been on the price of cocaine: DEA reports that a kilogram of cocaine in New York City now costs around $48,000. The same kilogram of cocaine, just a year earlier, would have been priced at $30,000 or less, making this an increase of at least 60% due to COVID. The DEA has also seen similar, though less extreme, increases in the cost of bulk quantities of other major drugs: the price of heroin has increased by 40%, the price of methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) has increased by 25%, and the price of fentanyl has increased by at least 18%.

Our own experience at Special Narcotics bear out these reports. We have seen an across-the­-board reduction in the quantities of narcotics seized in 2020; however, the decrease has not been equally distributed among drugs. Consistent with the price changes reported by DEA, we saw the biggest drop in the quantities of cocaine recovered. Between April and August of 2020, our cocaine seizures were only about 15% by weight of cocaine seized during the same period in 2019. Net volume of heroin and fentanyl seized were also down significantly, with heroin at about 31% of its 2019 levels during those months, and fentanyl around 21 %. The exception to this trend was methamphetamine. Our seizures of that drug actually exceeded 2019 levels, up 31%.

These changes directly affect our enforcement strategies. At the most basic level, international travel restrictions will likely result in fewer and smaller seizures in the near future. In investigations involving “controlled buys,” undercovers and informants purchasing drugs may need to pay more, particularly when buying larger quantities. We should also be watchful for drug dealers who adapt to the increased price of certain drugs either by diluting their drugs further, or by replacing them with other, cheaper alternatives. One possible, and potentially tragic, example of this is the replacement of cocaine with fentanyl. The logic behind this substitution may seem elusive: while both are white powders, cocaine and fentanyl have substantially different effects on the user. Cocaine is a stimulant (“upper”), accelerating heart rate, pulse and breathing, while fentanyl is a powerful opioid (”downer”), suppressing those same functions. However, the economics are straightforward. The price of cocaine has soared, while the price of fentanyl has risen at a slower rate. Substituting one white powder (fentanyl) for another (cocaine) gives the seller a higher profit. The unwitting buyer does not fare as well. The results of that mixture can be fatal: opioid-naive cocaine users exposed to the lethal potency of fentanyl are at an extreme risk of overdose. (1)

Narcotics trafficking organizations have sought to adapt to these restrictions by changing their methods. The DEA reports that Mexican cartels are sending less-frequent but larger shipments of drugs through commercial traffic. In addition, both domestic and international drug organizations have increased their use of express mail services, according to the DEA. When drugs are shipped by mail, the packages may be picked up by unwitting individuals who will in turn deliver the package of drugs to a dealer at another location. which complicates any law enforcement attempt to conduct a “controlled delivery,” in which the police orchestrate the hand-off of illegal substances and arrest the recipient.

Another impact of the COVID-related border restrictions has been on international money laundering operations. Just as it has become more difficult to bring narcotics into the US and New York, it has likewise become more difficult to move narcotics proceeds out, leading to increased stockpiles of cash for major drug transactions in New York City, a narcotics trafficking hub. As a result, when law enforcement has confiscated narcotics proceeds during the COVID pandemic, the amount seized has greatly exceeded typical seizures in the past. For instance, between April and June of 2019, the DEA’s New York Division had approximately 145 money (cash) seizures, which totaled $6.2 million. In the same three-month span this year, during the height of the COVID response, the New York Division had slightly fewer seizures – 135 – but the total amount of cash taken more than tripled, to $19.2 million. Special Narcotics investigations have reflected the same pattern: the total amount of narcotics proceeds we confiscated with our federal partners between July and September of this year has been more than triple what we confiscated during those months in 2019. (2)

The final narcotics-related effect of COVID that I want to discuss is the most tragic: the escalating human toll of addiction and overdose deaths. Evidence is mounting that overdose deaths, which had appeared to be stabilizing or even dropping slightly in 2019, are again on the rise due to the instability caused by COVID, particularly increased social isolation and stress. (3) Although some jurisdictions – including New York City – have been unable to keep up-to-date overdose statistics due to COVID, the data we do have paint a bleak picture. For instance, in Orange County, overdose deaths increased by about 20% in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2019. In the towns in Suffolk County for which 2020 data is available, the number of fatal overdoses has increased by approximately 40% compared to last year. Niagara (4) and Erie (5) Counties, among others, have also reported significant increases in fatal overdose rates this year. In New York City, preliminary data analyzed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has shown worrying signs that New York saw particularly high numbers of overdose deaths during the summer, although we will not know whether this is indeed the case until firmer data becomes available later this year.

Odyssey House, founded in 1967, offers residential and outpatient treatment and innovative programs in the metropolitan New York City area. A primary focus has been keeping parents and children together, and primary health care services are offered within residential centers.

I recently discussed these issues with Dr. Peter Provet, President and CEO of Odyssey House, which has offered residential and outpatient treatment in the New York City area for decades, with a focus on keeping families together. Dr. Provet described unprecedented challenges in providing treatment during COVID. In March, New York’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) recommended that residential treatment programs cease most admissions to slow the spread of the pandemic. (6) As a result, many of those suffering from addiction were unable to receive the treatment they needed. (7) In addition, Dr. Provet related how COVID had led to reductions in the capacity of some programs to distribute both medically-assisted treatments (MATs), such as buprenorphine, and life-saving drugs like naloxone. Dr. Provet pointed out that even when naloxone has been available, people may fear that administering it – which requires a forceful injection into the nostrils of the overdose victim – presents a high risk of exposing themselves to COVID.

Striking particularly close to home for many of us, Dr. Provet also noted that the suspension of court operations during COVID has largely closed off what had long been one of the most frequent drivers of treatment. ‘What we know way too well,” Dr. Provet said, “is that substance users get into treatment for extrinsic reasons” such as court referrals or pressure from employers and family. “The challenge is to convert extrinsic motivations into intrinsic. That is why we are missing the courts.”‘

We do not know how much longer COVID-19 will be with us, nor whether changes in national, state and local response will result in new trends that directly impact our work. As prosecutors, we have little ability to fight the pandemic directly. However, we can make adjustments to help mitigate its effects and stem the rise in fatal overdoses. We must continue our ongoing efforts to cut off the supply of dangerous drugs, stop the dealers from peddling these poisons, and promote support and treatment for those suffering from addiction.

This column reflects the research and substantial efforts of Eryck Kratville, head of our Heroin Interdiction Unit. Special thanks to the New York Division of the DEA; the Orange County and Suffolk County District Attorneys’ Offices; the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for New York City; and Dr. Peter Provet and Odyssey House for providing data and sharing insights for this article.

Endnotes

1. See, e.g., Kenneth C. Crowe II & Steve Hughes, Thirty Overdoses Rock Capital Region over 24 Hours, Times Union (May 21, 2020, 4:44 PM).
2. These figures only include data through approximately September 14, 2020; accordingly, the actual difference is likely to grow larger as additional funds are confiscated through the end of September. Finally, these figures only include seizures made in conjunction with federal law enforcement. Such seizures constitute the majority of the narcotics proceeds confiscated by Special Narcotics; however, some additional funds were confiscated with our state and local partners, and those seizures are not included here.
3. See Jon Kamp & Arian Campa-Flores, The Opioid Crisis, Already Serious, Has Intensified During Coronavirus Pandemic, The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 8, 2020, 10:28 AM).
4. Niagara County is experiencing increase in drug overdose calls amid COVID-19 pandemic, WIVB.com (Apr. 9, 2020, 3:50 PM).
5. Erie County Executive’s Office, You are not alone: Preventing opioid overdose in Erie County during COVID-19 (Aug. 14, 2020).
6. Office of Addiction Services and Supports, “Guidance for Admissions and Continued Stay in Community Based OASAS Inpatient and Residential Settings during the COVID-19 disaster emergency.”
7. Notably, Odyssey House was the first program to eventually receive permission from OASAS to re-open admission to its residential treatment program, after putting together a detailed regimen of testing, quarantining, and treatment.