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Online drug deals prop up opioid crisis

Effective Compassion | A new federal task force tries to stay ahead of narcotics on the darknet
by Rob Holmes
Posted 4/11/18, 04:39 pm

A new battlefront has emerged in the war on opioids, as dealers go online to peddle illicit drugs by mail. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said drug deals on encrypted portions of the internet, called the darknet, are “pouring fuel on the fire of the national drug epidemic.”

Especially worrying are potent synthetic opioids from China such as fentanyl, which is driving the huge increase in drug overdose deaths, estimated at more than 66,000 nationally last year. The legal uses for fentanyl in the United States include treating severe pain in cancer patients and managing pain during and after surgery.

Using secret web browsers and a code name, buyers can find overseas suppliers of fentanyl on the darknet. They can further hide their purchases through encryption and pay using a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. This year, Sessions doubled the number of agents assigned to pursue online dealers after investigations showed at least 19 deaths were due to fentanyl shipped through the mail.

Two weeks ago, a new federal interagency task force called the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) team arrested Antoin Austin of Euclid, Ohio, who listed ads for fentanyl on a darknet site. JCODE took Austin and seven others into custody after the FBI purchased a baggie of fentanyl that arrived complete with a thank you card from Austin. Besides 2,000 lethal doses of the painkiller, agents also seized computers and weapons.

In recent years authorities have managed to shut down two of the most infamous darknet marketplaces, Silk Road and AlphaBay, which proffered not only illegal drugs but weapons, stolen and counterfeit IDs, and computer malware. But agents said gangs now bring in illegal substances from China by mail, as well as smuggling them in through Mexico.

“A lot of [gangs] start on a smaller level and then they see how lucrative this can be and they keep expanding,” said Shawn Brokos, a supervisory agent in Pittsburgh.

Anonymous darknet transactions are hard to find and harder to stop.

“It’s not enough to simply take the sites down,” said Acting U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Downing. “Vendors look for another opportunity, another site … where they can go sell their drugs.”

President Donald Trump last month signed a $4.6 billion plan to fund extra agents and the JCODE strategy. He also advocated for capital punishment for dealers who are responsible for others’ deaths, though critics of the plan say it does little to establish treatment for those trapped in addiction or trafficking.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently advised more Americans to get and carry naloxone, an emergency antidote for opioid overdose. It is available in most states without a prescription, and Adams said Americans should “get trained to administer naloxone in the case of a suspected emergency.” He added, “You have an important role to play in addressing this public health crisis.”

Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes A message about the seizure of Backpage.com

Feds shutter Backpage.com, charge founder

Federal law enforcement officials took down Backpage.com and its affiliated websites just days before President Donald Trump signed a law closing legal loopholes that protected sites that host sex trafficking ads.

A notice posted Friday afternoon on the Backpage site read, “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized.” The seizure was part of an enforcement action by the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the IRS. FBI agents also raided the home of the site’s founder, Michael Lacey, and charged him and other Backpage executives with facilitating prostitution and money laundering.

Backpage, which earned 90 percent of its income from sex ads, saw its profits increase from $5.3 million in 2008 to $135 million in 2014, according to a U.S. Senate report released last year. Analysts believe much of that revenue came from the sale of children for sex. Backpage hosted ads using code words like “fresh” or “Amber Alert” to indicate the involvement of minors. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has identified 420 cases of missing children trafficked on Backpage and an additional 3,000 unconfirmed cases in California alone.

Though the seizure and arrests at Backpage preceded Trump’s signing of the law on Wednesday, supporters of the measure say it will have a positive effect on the fight against online sex trafficking in the future.

“This new anti-trafficking law is another victory that will empower survivors to have a pathway to justice, and will ensure traffickers can no longer be protected by safe havens or legal loopholes,” the bill’s co-sponsor Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, tweeted Wednesday. —Gaye Clark

Associated Press/Photo by Toby Talbot (file) Associated Press/Photo by Toby Talbot (file) Students at the University of Vermont

Starving students?

A U.S. study showed one-third of four-year college students undergo regular food and housing struggles. Couch-surfing and being penniless in college might not be news, but the study warned that more students live with financial strain that affects grades and eating regularly.

Temple University and Wisconsin HOPE lab researchers surveyed 43,000 volunteer participants at 66 colleges and institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Results showed 36 percent of students self-reported being unable to eat adequately, and 36 percent also said they lacked proper housing, including 9 percent who claimed to be homeless. A further 9 percent said they had been forced to skip eating at least one day in the previous month.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and the lead author of the report, which tallied figures for each of the past three years, urged colleges to “design programs to proactively support students” by offering them more services.

But some students may be spending their money on partying instead of eating and good housing. “Almost 60 percent of college students ages 18-22 drank alcohol in the past month, and almost 2 out of 3 of them engaged in binge drinking,” a National Institutes of Health publication said.

Christian families could do much to encourage a student with a regular dinner invitation. —R.H.

Syringe exchange program connects drug users to help

Chattanooga, Tenn., is the latest U.S. city to begin a syringe-exchange program for drug users to stop the spread of disease due to shared or unsterile needles.

Chattanooga CARES (Council on AIDS, Resources, Education and Support), a nonprofit organization operating since 1986, gives a clean needle for a dirty one in its syringe-exchange program (SEP) designed to connect with addicts and coax them into testing and treatment.

“People who are in these programs are five times more likely to actually get into treatment, and you can also see an 11 percent reduction in crime,” Cory Howard, Chattanooga CARES director of development and communications, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Though SEPs—or syringe service programs, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls them—may appear to enable drug use, the CDC said they don’t increase drug use or crime. They also have been shown to curb needle stick injuries for police and first responders.

The Chattanooga program also provides critical training for drug users in how to prevent and respond to an overdose, using a sample of naloxone nasal spray. The medication reverses opioid overdose and has been effective in many states. —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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Comments

  • VIRGINIA TEAGUE
    Posted: Wed, 04/11/2018 07:34 pm

    In the first section of this article it says ‘Besides 2,0000 lethal doses of the painkiller, agents also seized computers and weapons.’ That’s supposed to be either a 2,000 or a 20,000.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Thu, 04/12/2018 09:20 am

    Thank you for pointing out the error. We have corrected it to read 2,000.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 04/14/2018 12:00 am

    I'm not too surprised to hear that a lot of college students are having trouble affording food. A lot of colleges are offering extravagent all-you-can-eat meals for recruitment purposes (I assume), and then charge accordingly after students enroll. Oh, and students are often required to purchase a meal plan if they want to live on campus.

    Also, it turns out that a lot of people don't want to live next to apartments full of college students, so you get a lot of NIMBY stuff going on about increasing housing options. In my old college town, most houses and apartments could only be rented by no more than three (unrelated) people, no matter how big the house or how many bedrooms it had.

  • Bonnie Jean
    Posted: Sat, 04/14/2018 11:52 am

    I'd like to understand the specific drug that is an antidote for opiod overdose. However, it is spelled "Naxolone" earlier in this article and later it's called "Naloxone spray."  I'm confused!

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Mon, 04/16/2018 01:40 pm

    The correct spelling is “naloxone.” Thank you for pointing out the error. The spray form is used by EMS and first responders and is what the surgeon general is recommending for those who are in contact with people addicted to opiods to carry with them.

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