Originally Published: February 9, 2018 6:05 a.m.
Yearly drug seizure statistics are one indication of which illegal substances are declining in popularity within a community and which are gaining.
Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking (PANT), a multi-agency task force charged with drug enforcement in Yavapai County, recently released its 2017 statistics, and some of the results reveal possible shifts in the area’s black market drug sales.
For example, the amount of cocaine and heroin seized was down from 2016 amounts, but the amount of marijuana and methamphetamine seized had increased.
Additionally, fentanyl, in pill form, made its statistical debut in Yavapai County.
“We hadn’t seized any pills with fentanyl of any significant amount at all within the last few years,” said Lt. Nate Auvenshine, of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO). He is the task force commander for PANT.
Fentanyl — a synthetic opioid, a depressant intended as a pain reliever — is a relatively new drug on the black market, compared to longtime staples like cocaine, heroin and marijuana. However, fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, a natural opioid, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Now that local law enforcement agencies know that fentanyl is being used illegally in Yavapai County, they are on the look out for it, Auvenshine said, adding that extra precaution are necessary when handling fentanyl.
“[Fentanyl] is a new threat not only to our community, but also to first responders because of the potency of it and the ability that it can be ingested airborne or through the skin,” Auvenshine said.
In the past, fentanyl was typically mixed with other opioids, such as heroin, but black-market producers and distributors of fentanyl are finding new ways to sneak it past law-enforcement agencies and increase its popularity as a standalone drug.
“They’re coming over the border in mimicked pill form, looking like Percocet, oxycodone or other things,” Auvenshine said.
As for the spike in marijuana seizures this year, the majority of that substance is high-grade hydroponic, coming from Northern California and other parts of the western United States, Auvenshine said.
“We have definitely seen a decrease coming over the southern borders because there’s much less demand and profit for that type of marijuana,” Auvenshine said. “People are wanting the high-grade hydroponic marijuana, which is a higher quality and THC (the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis) content.”
DPS seizure statistics
The Department of Public Safety (DPS) is also a PANT member and handles narcotic investigations through a DPS taskforce, the Northern Narcotics Unit, based in Prescott.
While the other PANT members do most of the local investigations, the majority of the DPS’s work in Yavapai County is done along the interstates, such as I-17, I-40 and U.S. 93, up through Wickenburg on the southwest end of the county.
Capt. George Manera, who oversees narcotics investigations for DPS throughout the state, said there was an increase in the amount of heroin seized in Yavapai County in 2017 over 2016.
“The heroin was an increase over the previous year,” Manera said, adding that marijuana and methamphetamine seizures in Yavapai County were down a little overall.
He said staffing changes were the primary reason that DPS’s drug seizures in Yavapai County were low last year compared to previous years.
“It had to do with some staffing issues and with some people promoting and transferring around,” Manera said. “We didn’t have as many people out on the road, or we have younger troopers out on the road who aren’t as experienced in criminal interdiction.”
Additionally, one of the agency’s trained dogs was moved to another location in the state, he said.
So far this year, however, in the first two months of 2018, DPS has seized more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine in Yavapai County, Manera said. That’s twice as much methamphetamine as DPS seized in 2017.
“Most of it’s passing through the state,” Manera said. “A lot of the drugs come across the international border. They’re stored here, and then we’re a distribution center for the rest of the United States.”
Prevention and education
Personnel from PANT provided several educational offerings throughout 2017, including “Lunch and Learn” events conducted by MatForce, the collaborative nonprofit, based in Prescott Valley, with a mission to prevent substance abuse in Yavapai County. Pant also participated in the Yavapai County Drug Overdose Fatality Review Board, as well as offering drug education classes at Yavapai College, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and within the Humboldt Unified School District.
“Enforcement is only going to get us so far,” Auvenshine, of YCSO, said. “So we found a few years ago, before I came in here, that there’s a benefit to work with those organizations in education and prevention, as well.”
The next MatForce Lunch and Learn — titled “An Overview of the Opioid Crisis & Alternative Pain Management” — is set for 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 21, in the Vultee Conference Room of the Sedona City Hall Complex, 106 Roadrunner Dr.
A mile-long, “Stand With Me, Be Drug Free” family walk is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, March 3, beginning at Mortimer Farms, 12907 Highway 169, in Dewey.
In Prescott, a MatForce Lunch and Learn session titled “The Truth about Marijuana” is set for 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Thursday, April 26, at the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors’ room, 1015 Fair St.
All three events are free to attend.