Law enforcement at all levels believe their efforts to curb the flow of drugs into communities is just and that the war is not only worth fighting, it’s winnable. However, as time goes on and more resources are poured into this endless campaign, citizens have become less patient. And as Mexican drug cartels have gained more power and influence, they’ve been able to ensure the flow of drugs is uninterrupted. Even though they know some product may be intercepted, they don’t care. It’s a cost of doing business.
From the streets of Mexico to the streets of Western North Carolina, traffickers understand that crossing a cartel could mean death, but doing their bidding is lucrative as long someone can avoid arrest. This makes it easy for drug trafficking organizations to control just about anyone they deem useful. Cartels call it “plato o plomo,” a phrase deriving from Colombian Spanish that means “silver or lead.”
According to local, state and federal law enforcement officers interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News, the drugs causing the biggest issues are methamphetamine and opioids. Both have been problems for decades, but the crisis has exploded in the last five years as supercharged versions of each have flooded the market and proven far more addictive.
With the existing mental health epidemic that was made worse during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the crisis is more extreme than ever. Overdose deaths have increased 72% since 2019, with a 40% jump in 2020 during the first year of the pandemic. In 2021, overdose deaths increased 22% as 4,041 people in North Carolina lost their lives. This is the highest number of overdose deaths in a single year on record in the state. In 2021, more than 77% of overdose deaths in the state likely involved the synthetic drug fentanyl, which is more powerful than any other commonly used opioid.
Dan Salter runs the Atlanta office for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking program. Unlike the Drug Enforcement Administration, HIDTA is part of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which falls under the Executive Office of the President. He said that despite all efforts, the drug epidemic has worsened in recent years.
“You could almost identify areas in certain parts of the country that you would expect to see drug use, but now it’s just rampant across all demographics,” Salter said.
Some argue that intense supply-side disruptions are the best solution, but others think banning substances makes the problem worse. The Iron Law of Prohibition, a term coined in 1986 by Richard Cowan — who was at the time the Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORMAL — states that the more law enforcement efforts intensify, the more demand for prohibited substances increases. More enforcement can also incentivize dealers to increase the drug’s potency.
“The harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs,” Cowan said.
Nabarun Dasgupta, a scientist with UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center, said research backs that theory up in the modern day when it comes to the likes of meth and fentanyl.
“The point is that the standard things that law enforcement are doing, they don’t work,” he said. “We need better solutions.”
The path meth and fentanyl take from production to the pipe or the needle is long but well established.
Most meth and opioids consumed in the United States come from Mexico. The precursor chemicals to produce these synthetic drugs are shipped in from a few foreign nations with most entering Mexico’s Pacific ports from China. It is difficult to stop the shipment of these precursors considering most have legitimate, even common, industrial usages.
This is a marked change from the way things used to be.
A few decades ago, the popularity of both prescription and illicit opioids exploded. While the poppy required to produce heroin was largely in grown in countries like Afghanistan and Mexico, once synthetic opioids became popular, there was less demand for the organic product.
Derek Maltz, who worked 28 years in the DEA including about a decade in charge of its special operations division, recalled what he saw around that same time. He said that in the late 2000s, they saw a spike in synthetic drugs such as cannabinoids with brand names like “Spice” and “K2” that were sold at gas stations and head shops. Those products were commonly manufactured in China and shipped to the United States.
At that time, fentanyl was a prescription painkiller in the United States, but it wasn’t long before the Chinese chemists working on behalf of criminal organizations in that country began manufacturing fentanyl and sending it to the United States through the mail.
“We started seeing many people in America dying from what was reported as heroin overdoses until the autopsy reports came back and it came back as fentanyl,” Maltz said.
As the government cracked down on such shipments, Chinese criminal organizations realized they had a business opportunity and began selling precursor chemicals to cartels. Around 2016, fake prescription pills looking like OxyContin, Xanax and Xylazine containing fentanyl turned up, and now they’re everywhere.
Part of Dasgupta’s job is to test certain substances to determine what drugs may actually be in them, and he recommends any drug users have some kind of identification test to ensure they don’t take something they didn’t want.
- Part of Nabarun Dasgupta's job is to see what other substances might be present in certain drugs. Donated photo
Dasgupta said the overdose spike over the last couple of years stemmed from the government’s crackdown on legally prescribed opioids. People who were already addicted found another avenue to get what they needed, and the fentanyl boom came just in time.
“We’ve seen a broad shift in the market from pills to synthetically produced fentanyl and other opioid analogues,” he said.
Meanwhile, meth has continued to grow in popularity as addiction rates rise. Through the mid-2000s, meth was largely produced in local clandestine labs. Waynesville resident Joey Reece is a retired DEA agent who worked plenty of scenes with meth labs.
“That was all the way back to when the P2P meth from the biker gangs was still common,” he said.
Reece also recalled that when meth labs started popping up, cooks around southern Appalachia began using large amounts of over-the-counter drugs containing pseudoephedrine to make their product. The drug’s popularity boomed.
“The old adage was you could leave a kilo of cocaine on your front porch, and people would pass it by looking for either meth or pills,” he said.
Once the new state and federal laws made it impossible to get enough pseudoephedrine to produce mass amounts of meth, local labs dried up. Cartels had already established meth operations in Mexico prior to this point, so once the market in the United States opened up, they seized the opportunity.
The cartels could produce meth cheaper. Like with fentanyl, massive amounts of precursor chemicals can be shipped from China. The cheapest and most effective way to make meth on that scale is the method Reece mentioned, using phenyl-2-propane.
Now P2P meth is ubiquitous.
Fronteras del norte
In an interview with National Public Radio, former Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske said drugs are moved north across the Mexican border, at which point a mule will “immediately transfer the drugs to another individual.” While the border has been much publicized and politicized due to increasing detentions of undocumented immigrants, “well over 90%” of drugs come through legal ports of entry, Kerlikowske said.
Robert Murphy has been with the DEA since 1997 and now serves as the special agent in charge of the Atlanta Regional Office, which covers Georgia and the Carolinas. Murphy agreed that most drugs are trafficked into the United States through legal ports of entry. Most commonly, they are hidden within shipments of legitimate goods.
“We see partitions in gas tanks,” he said. “One time, we had Disney figurines you would buy for your kids, and they were made completely out of meth.”
Traffickers have even been known to mix foam meth into the lining of semitruck ceilings, including one found in Georgia in late 2021.
- A HAZMAT cleanup crew prepares to remove liquid meth from inside the tractor trailer. DEA photo
It’s hard to search all vehicles that come across while still allowing a reasonable flow of trade. Murphy said sometimes a cartel will send several vehicles with shipments across at the same time, but prior to their crossing, someone will call in a tip on someone in front of that group to divert border patrol agents’ attention.
“Some poor person was paid ‘x’ amount of dollars and is driving across the border,” Murphy said. “All they are is a distraction, and then the lane is wide open.”
When Murphy started with DEA in the 90s, Colombian trafficking organizations were moving drugs through the Miami area. During that time, agents would investigate smuggling routes and bust people in passenger vehicles or boats.
All at once, something changed.
“I want to say it was late ‘98,” Murphy said. “I went to bed, and when I woke up Mexican cartels had completely taken over.”
As the DEA clamped down on drug shipping routes in the Caribbean, which are still in use to a lesser degree to smuggle cocaine and marijuana, many traffickers went overland through Central America and Mexico to get to the United States. Because they controlled these routes, the cartels made more money while also honing their trafficking operations, and they grew fast.
As meth and synthetic opioids became more popular in the United States, cartels produced massive amounts of product with impressive purity that could be sold cheap, all without marijuana and poppy fields that are subject to interdiction flyovers and even satellite surveillance. In some cases, in the very spots where those fields used to be, there are now super labs churning out synthetic drugs around the clock.
They wrangled control of every step of the process.
It was a business decision. Buy for $1 sell for $2, but in the cartels’ case with China delivering precursors at an extreme discount, it’s more like manufacture for $1, sell for $10.
“Making meth is pennies on the dollar, and it’s selling for $6,000 a kilo now,” Murphy said.
Welcome to Atlanta
Drug trafficking organizations, called DTOs, came to control the drug trade in Atlanta, which has become the primary center for shipping narcotics throughout the eastern United States — it’s essentially the new Miami.
In Atlanta, two cartels dominate — Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, or CJNG — and they’re run by people who are trusted back in Mexico. Those two cartels are currently engaged in a violent turf war in Mexico but tend to maintain the peace in Atlanta and sometimes even work together when an arrangement proves to be mutually beneficial.
Murphy said Atlanta is an obvious choice for cartels to use as a drug trafficking hub because of its access to transportation with several major interstates and a large airport, a relatively low cost of living and a strong economy.
“It’s the same reason Atlanta is attractive for every major business … it’s a very tragic cocktail,” he said.
- Atlanta has become the drug trafficking hub for the entire Eastern United States. Shutterstock image
Cartel associates in Atlanta usually work on one-year contracts. Some of the lower-ranking people who come across the border make far more money than they could in Mexico and can send plenty of cash back home to their families. Sometimes their loyalty is guaranteed by coercion or threats. The carrot or the stick, plato o plomo.
“They control them through family members in Mexico, the fear of retribution,” Murphy said.
While Sinaloa and CJNG aren’t known for frequent acts of violence in the Atlanta area, that’s because people know how real the threat is and rarely get out of line. El plomo — the lead — ensures that promises made are promises kept.
Murphy said he’s seen bodies burned to death on the side of the road in Georgia.
“You hear it on the street, ‘We don’t mess with the Mexicans,’” Murphy said. “It’s a different level of violence.”
Others come to the area as well, including chemists who make their way north to teach workers how to process certain drugs. Murphy said they track chemists’ movements as part of an effort to map out cartel operations and gain a better understanding of their chain of command.
Before Salter took his position with HIDTA, he spent 33 years as a DEA agent and served in Murphy’s current role from 2015-2018. Salter said when he came to Atlanta and got his first briefings, he was “blown away” by how tightly the cartels controlled the drug trade, and why it seemed more centralized in that city.
“The cartels centralized their distribution and transportation here in the Atlanta Metroplex which makes it very easy to reach out and deliver their product to Asheville, to Raleigh, to Columbia, South Carolina,” he said.
Dante (a random named assigned to a trafficker whose identity is being protected due to an ongoing investigation) was traveling in his BMW through Western North Carolina with meth, fentanyl, psilocybin mushrooms, paraphernalia, a handgun and $700 cash when he saw the flashing lights in his rear-view mirror.
Officers, based on a tip from a confidential informant tying Dante to a DTO, attempted to pull him over for having an obscured license plate. Dante fled, and a chase ensued that reached speeds of up to 130 mph. After an officer executed a PIT maneuver and caused Dante to crash, he owned up to what he’d been doing in the area, and a search warrant was drawn up for the location where he said a large amount of meth was being cooked.
One officer arrived at the residence Dante mentioned and waited for more units to arrive. Three people came outside. The officer told them why he was there and said they were free to do whatever they wanted as long as they didn’t try to access the residence. They said they were going to do some yard work and went back to an outbuilding just outside the officer’s view.
A “large fireball” came from the wood line and hit the back of the residence, igniting a blaze.
The officer detained the three individuals and got on the radio to request that others get to the scene as soon as possible. He also called for the fire department to stage in case the fire grew.
The cops worked together to extinguish the fire, using buckets of water to ensure the flames didn’t reach a nearby propane tank. Once the search commenced, officers found multiple containers holding a “clear crystalline substance,” plastic buckets, two cans of acetone and some unidentified liquid. A field test confirmed that the crystalline substance was meth. Over 38 pounds of the drug was seized.
A common way for meth to enter the country from Mexico is in liquid form. In many cases, it is shipped to trafficking hubs like Atlanta before being passed along to a conversion lab, which employs a simple process to convert the liquid meth to crystal form.
Many of those conversion labs are in the Atlanta Metro Area, including one found in July of last year with 800 pounds of liquid-foam meth that hadn’t yet been cooked.
“We have conversion labs all over Atlanta,” Murphy said.
It’s easy to keep a conversion lab under wraps as long as those operating it don’t draw any attention to themselves. Murphy said the families renting the property often look innocent, with some even having kids who take the bus to school every morning.
“It’s literally the family you want living next door except for the fact that they’re making toxic chemicals,” Murphy said.
Murphy said property owners renting to people running conversion labs aren’t always in on the game, but they should have an idea, considering they are usually fronted several months’ rent in cash.
“It’s just greed,” he said.
They are also becoming more common in rural areas, especially in North Georgia. In August of last year, a conversion lab was taken down in Franklin County, a sparsely populated area about an hour south of the North Carolina border. That region’s rolling hills accommodate larger pastures than the rugged mountains of Western North Carolina, which makes for the perfect spot to cook meth undetected. The Franklin County operation, housed in an outbuilding on a 100-acre farm owned by an Atlanta-area man, was large. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the 255 gallons of liquid meth found there could produce up to 700 kilograms of crystal with a potential street value of $7.8 million.
- A propane heating element and cookware found at a conversion lab. DEA photo
The meth that arrives in Western North Carolina often comes from such labs.
Murphy believes a lab like the one found in Franklin County is constantly producing, meaning the large amount found there was to be processed and shipped before long, at which point more liquid meth would be delivered.
“It’s going up and down the East Coast and then into the Midwest,” Murphy said.
GBI Special Agent Trent Hillsman heads up the agency’s drug taskforce in the northern part of that state; his jurisdiction includes almost every trafficking route that goes from Atlanta to North Carolina, including some of those that pass through South Carolina or Tennessee.
Not long before the Franklin County raid, according to search warrants from multiple cases, Dante’s small Western North Carolina conversion lab was found.
After the arrest of a “cook” in the Atlanta area, the Sinaloa Cartel ordered a trusted trafficker —Dante — to clear out a similar lab “somewhere on the border of Georgia and Tennessee.” Dante was told to expect a certain number of 5-gallon buckets of liquid meth. There was an extra bucket, so he took it for himself.
Dante sells kilogram quantities of meth to several people in Western North Carolina on a weekly basis. Those people break that meth up and deliver it to street-level dealers from East Tennessee to Asheville and perhaps beyond. Dante brought the extra liquid meth to his Smoky Mountain partners and told them how to convert it to crystal.
The Western North Carolina crew got to work. The process usually involves a little bit of chemistry and some equipment, but it was cruder in this case. They soaked socks in the liquid meth and hung them up in front of fans to dry them off.
But they never got to reap the profit as that meth now sits in an evidence locker.
Meanwhile, the conversion labs in the Atlanta metroplex and North Georgia carry on, meeting the endless demand for meth as far as their trafficking networks can reach.
Gateway to the Smokies
From Atlanta, drugs enter Western North Carolina in a variety of ways. Some come from Charlotte via Asheville, and some come up U.S. 441, leading them right to Franklin, an otherwise quiet town that has seen an uptick in large trafficking busts in recent years.
At the cartel level, the business is structured and controlled the whole way. The farther down the chain the drugs go, the less organization is involved. The cartels don’t care who sells what at the street level as long as they get their money.
The Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG in Atlanta deal with other criminal entities, such the Aryan Brotherhood, Sureños and Bloods factions like Sex, Money, Murda. Those gangs have connections in Western North Carolina that can run drugs to local dealers, many of whom claim they belong to Gangster Disciples, a nationwide gang that originated in Chicago and is represented by a six-pointed star, like the Star of David. That symbol appears in graffiti and tattoos around the region.
One Georgia gang that has an outsized role in drug trafficking is the Ghostface Gangsters, who have enjoyed a meteoric rise in recent years. That gang is mostly white, but authorities have said not all members espouse white supremacist ideals, and they do business with Mexican cartels and other ethnic gangs. Founded in prison, the gang is now run by seven men, known as the “pillars.” While the gang is purported to have hundreds and maybe even thousands of members on Georgia streets, its hierarchy is largely locked up.
In July 2021, in what was called the “ single largest gang investigation in Georgia,” charges were brought against 77 Ghost Face Gangsters, including three of the pillars. Gov. Brian Kemp spoke at a news conference following the announcements.
“Gangs are the driving force behind violent crime across our state … Given what we are seeing in Atlanta and other places, I don’t think people need convincing anymore that we are facing a gang-violence crime crisis in our state but also across the country,” he said.
In August of last year, 25 defendants, including the three “Pillars,” pleaded guilty to RICO charges as well as conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, maiming and attempted murder.
“On the street and from behind bars, Ghostface Gangsters have trafficked drugs and orchestrated and perpetrated horrific acts of violence,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan. K. Buchanan.
Some people operate trafficking rings from prison in North Carolina, but it’s an even bigger problem in Georgia, where the Ghostface Gangsters and similar prison gangs hold sway. Hillsman called them “prison brokers.”
Alfonso Brito, known by the name “Casper,” was recently found guilty in federal court of trafficking meth. According to court documents, an investigation into a DTO in Catawba, Gaston and Lincoln counties that began in 2018 led to Brito, who had been in a Georgia prison since 2017 when he was convicted to a 30-year sentence for incest. Information from a cooperating defendant in June 2022 indicated Brito was a prison broker. According to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, between 2019 to the fall of 2021, Brito coordinated individual shipments of “multiple kilograms” of meth totaling more than 100 kilograms from “the Atlanta area into Western North Carolina.”
According to a search warrant, it was through information obtained by two cooperating defendants that the large shipments were tied to Brito, who was communicating with runners “regularly” through social media, including CashApp, as well as cell phones.
Brito has yet to be sentenced.
For some, selling drugs in prison can raise their profile while they’re incarcerated, which will help them outside the walls.
“The best thing that can happen to someone in the drug game is they go to federal prison or any other prison, and they make a connection with a Mexican drug gang and then they get released,” Murphy said.
Once the prison broker contacts an outside partner, they set up a meeting or a dead drop. Sometimes, the transaction may be as quick and anonymous as picking up a car in a parking lot, driving it to another place, then going home without ever speaking to anyone.
Mid-level traffickers in Western North Carolina may pick up meth, fentanyl and other drugs several times per week. The pickup spot may be in Atlanta, North Georgia, Charlotte, Asheville or another far-western county. Sometimes, they even ship smaller amounts via the U.S. Postal Service.
U.S. Attorney Dena King prosecutes federal criminal cases in the Western District of North Carolina, which covers Charlotte up to Hickory and all the way west to Cherokee County. King said that as the cartels have built their monopoly, they’ve become “big-box retailers” with traffickers who deliver several different substances each trip.
“[Traffickers and dealers] are a one-stop shop in terms of what people want,” she said. “They want to be a single source for everything.”
King, who has prosecuted drug cases most of her career, noted some other changes she’s seen, including purer meth than ever, as well as larger amounts being moved for lower wholesale prices. She said the explosion of fentanyl is also unlike anything she’s seen, adding that they encounter street-level dealers cutting all kinds of other drugs with the substance, even more common drugs like cocaine. There are several reasons this happens. Sometimes it’s to increase the potency of another opioid like heroin, sometimes it’s what customers want, and sometimes they include it to hook a person on fentanyl.
“That’s part of why we’re seeing the uptick in overdose deaths,” King said.
Sometimes, several local people with connections in Atlanta will band together to form a bona fide trafficking operation.
Such was the case with a ring that was broken up in Macon County through Operation JAWBreaker, which ended in 2018 with numerous arrests. “JAW” stands for the first names of the three primary targets — James Steele, Arthur Potts and Wade Ennis. Those men employed runners to pick up drugs in Atlanta and were supplying a large portion of meth users in Macon and surrounding counties. Most, if not all, of the runners and street-level dealers were users who took a cut in return for running the drugs.
Steele pleaded guilty to continuing a criminal enterprise and was sentenced to at least 70 months in prison, and Ennis died of a heart attack before trial. Potts was given a suspended sentence and has been in and out of jail on drug charges since.
In a story from The Southern Scoop, Assistant District Attorney Jason Arnold said the prosecutions brought Operation JAWBreaker to a “successful conclusion.”
“It is the culmination of a long investigation that led to the 2018 arrests of 13 individuals,“ he said. “Along with our law enforcement partners, we are focused on protecting our community from the selling and using of dangerous drugs, sometimes with fatal consequences. This operation highlights effective partnerships in targeting people who have engaged in illegal behavior.”
Former Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland, who held that office until December of last year, said that although he doesn’t consider Macon County to be a drug trafficking hub, he did see large quantities sometimes. Other times, people would make several trips to pick up smaller loads.
“We saw that they would make multiple trips a day,” Holland said. “They would never come back with super large quantities, just come back and forth, because they knew that they couldn’t bring large quantities, because we could end up popping them down the road.”
North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier said that’s something he sees throughout the state, considering how many major highways there are.
“North Carolina has one of the largest and most efficient transportation systems in the whole country … it’s no surprise cartels take full advantage of that,” he said.
- Drugs often enter Western North Carolina on U.S. 441 through Macon County. Bob Scott photo
When drugs reach Western North Carolina, they are sold to street-level dealers through a few avenues. Search warrants say meth and fentanyl are sometimes trafficked out of businesses, including multiple mechanic shops from Murphy to Asheville. There were also several people interviewed who said that trafficking on the Qualla Boundary is a problem, and search warrants indicate that drug dealers have operated out of casino hotels both on the boundary and in Murphy.
Neither the Cherokee Indian Police Department nor the Tribal Prosecutor’s Office could be reached for comment.
Drugs are sold across the region at prices that vary based on several factors, including availability. Street-level dealers and runners often work for traffickers to support their own habit. However, Nabarun Dasgupta, the UNC researcher, said people often turn to selling narcotics based on economic circumstances.
“Most people on the street retail level who are selling drugs would rather be doing something else … given better alternatives, people would readily take them,” he said.
Once drugs get to street-level dealers, it’s hard to tell what customers may get. Several dealers could be supplied from the same batch of drugs, even from the same runner, but could sell a different product on the street, depending on how they cut it.
The results can be dangerous, even deadly. In February of last year, six people overdosed at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn when the cocaine they used was laced with fentanyl. Only a few days ago, The Boulder, Colorado, Police Department put out a warning on Twitter that there had been several overdoses in one day, leading them to believe someone had put out a bad batch.
“There’s a lot of domestic experimentation going on in the local markets,” Dasgupta said.
Once in local markets, those drugs can be purchased hand-to-hand from a known dealer. A more recent phenomenon is an increase in people buying drugs on social media. A report from NPR earlier this year called attention to that very trend and quoted lawmakers and activists who were concerned that people who may not otherwise use drugs could be brought into the market — especially children.
Bill Hollingsed was Waynesville’s police chief from 1999-2019. He said that at the beginning of his tenure, drugs were sold as people might imagine — out of businesses and homes, and occasionally on street corners. But that’s not always true anymore.
“With cell phones and social media, you can arrange deals whenever and wherever you want,” Hollingsed said. “You don’t have to drive into certain communities or certain places or know a guy to go buy your drug; you just get on social media. That has really hindered law enforcement.”
The land of the sky
Along with Henderson County, Buncombe County is the only government-designated high intensity drug trafficking area out of North Carolina’s 10 westernmost counties. As the biggest city in Western North Carolina, Asheville is the region’s largest trafficking hub.
Joe Silberman is the captain in charge of the Asheville Police Department’s criminal investigations division. While Silberman said his detectives don’t see cartel members residing in Asheville as reported by other outlets, they encounter people with direct connections to those organizations. He added that some traffickers keep a place to stay in multiple towns where they move drugs.
“There are some who even will have a dual residency here and Charlotte,” Silberman said.
SMN also spoke with an APD detective who is a sworn member of a DEA taskforce. Because of the undercover nature of their work, they spoke on the condition of anonymity. That detective has been with the department on-and-off over two decades and said the demand for drugs is larger than ever.
“Whereas years ago, we were dealing in small quantities, maybe ounces, we’re now seeing kilograms,” they said.
One man who sat atop a major polydrug trafficking ring in Asheville for a couple of years is Rodney Allison, who was sentenced to 310 months in prison after being arrested in April 2019. Investigators employed numerous tactics to zero in on Allison and his coconspirators, including interviews with cooperating witnesses, controlled drug buys and searches of personal electronic devices.
Over the course of the investigation, law enforcement seized several pounds of drugs, 12 firearms, ammunition and $153,674 in cash. Along with Allison, who went by the aliases “Hot” “Biggs” and “Black,” seven other defendants were also sentenced to prison terms ranging from 37 to 108 months.
Court documents outline how Allison supplied several dealers around the Asheville area, who then distributed smaller quantities to street-level dealers. One witness said Allison had delivered drugs to him about 10 times over a two-to-three-week period with quantities up to a kilogram. Another witness claimed he received about 2 kilograms of meth and an ounce-and-a-half of heroin from Allison every month. The government extrapolated from such statements that Allison had provided that man alone with 48 kilograms of meth and 24 ounces of heroin.
A search of Allison’s iPhone revealed his text messages with lower-level dealers. Many of the messages explicitly discuss transactions. For example, on May 28, 2018, Allison set up a deal on his phone.
“I need the same thing I got last time,” someone texted Allison.
“what u need,” Allison replied.
“Half of clear.” Clear is known slang for meth.
- A tote full of crystal meth that's ready to ship out found at a conversion lab. DEA photo
A memo from Allison’s defense attorney concedes that Allison sold some meth but argued he wasn’t the “kingpin” the U.S. Attorney’s office was making him out to be. Allison is related to several members of a known Atlanta criminal organization, who according to court documents, run some of their enterprise out of their night club in Atlanta where multiple people have been shot in recent years, including 51-year-old Melvin Allison, who was killed there in 2016.
Allison’s attorney argued that his client was steered into a life of crime by family and that he was far from being a high-level trafficker.
“The defendant has been used — ‘played’ in the words of his older sister — by others since childhood,” the sentencing memo states.
A difference between drug sales in Asheville and other WNC counties is that in Asheville, there are some areas where transactions occur out in the open.
“There are a number of places in the city with open air drug markets,” Silberman said.
Where those open-air drug markets exist, there are higher rates of violence, Silberman added. An initiative APD instituted in the last couple of years focuses on getting guns off the streets to curb violent crime. While there has still been an overall rise in violent crime, Silberman thinks it’s not as sharp as it would have been if they hadn’t implemented the program.
He said most guns are seized from people who are trafficking or selling illegal drugs.
A lot of the violence isn’t a matter of business, but rather the result of personal vendettas among those in the trade who turn to the gun to settle disputes. Silberman cited the Westville Pub shooting of 2021 as an example.
“That was a sort of grudge that led to an armed robbery,” he said. “That led to a shooting and an accidental death. That led to another series of shootings where nobody died. That led to a retaliatory killing.”
Drugs up, money down
Drug dealers conduct numerous small transactions every day. Most of the proceeds — money that is leeched from the local economy — make their way back up the chain to cartels.
Some people who fall into addiction can maintain jobs and a steady income stream, but a lot struggle to feed their habit and can’t find gainful employment; many end up unhoused. They must find another way to get money for drugs they need. WNC residents complain about a rise in property crimes, from stolen vehicles and easy-to-pawn items like lawn equipment to shoplifting.
“I think most of our theft and property crime has a root in narcotics,” Silberman said.
One of the most common targets in rural areas is Walmart, where items can be stolen and returned for a gift card that can be used as currency. In recent reporting from Asheville Watchdog, one woman said that when she was using, she’d pay $40 to $60 for a gram of meth. Sometimes, she would shoplift from Walmart and return items for gift cards and other times dealers would request specific items for her to steal.
“They’d give you like a little shopping list,” the woman said.
Money often changes hands between the exact same parties who traffic the drugs before it reaches the cartels in Atlanta.
Last month, a Florida man was sentenced to 260 months in prison after being found guilty of several charges tied to not only trafficking drugs, but also to moving money for cartels. According to a press release sent out by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Jorge Luis Perez distributed meth, heroin and fentanyl in Jackson and Swain counties. Authorities learned of Perez’s trafficking through a larger investigation into regional networks.
“Court records show that Perez obtained his drugs from drug trafficking distributors in Mexico by way of Georgia,” the release reads, adding that he also moved drugs in Georgia and Florida.
A traffic stop in Sylva led to the discovery of a “distribution quantity” of meth, a firearm and over $10,000 cash. Cops stopped Perez again a couple of months later and found more meth than before, as well as digital scales. Later that day, they searched Perez’s camper and seized drugs, AR-15 magazines, ammunition and a money counter.
“Law enforcement also found several wire transfer receipts indicating that Perez was wiring money to Mexico, under false names and addresses,” the release reads. “In the camper, Perez also had a shrine dedicated to Santa Muerte, who has been adopted by drug traffickers as a folk ‘patron saint.’”
- A shrine to Santa Muerte found inside an Atlanta area conversion lab. Santa Muerte has been adopted by traffickers as a sort of folk patron saint. DEA photo
Once bulk proceeds make their way to higher-level traffickers or cartel members, criminal organizations use “smurfs,” who split up proceeds — whether physically or digitally — and deposit them at different banks, keeping each sum under $10,000, at which point the transactions would be reported.
Sometimes, they move bulk cash all the way back to Mexico.
“Those same hidden compartments that are utilized to transport drugs are utilized to transport thousands or millions of dollars in cash,” said U.S. Attorney King.
Proceeds can be laundered through casinos where cash is turned into chips, payments of college tuition or real estate. In testimony to a Canadian commission of inquiry in 2020, John Cassara, a former investigator at the U.S. Treasury Department and author of the new book, “China-Specified Unlawful Activities: CCP Inc., Transnational Crime and Money Laundering,” talked about money laundering through real estate.
“Almost 60% of purchases by international clients are made in cash,” he said. “Chinese buyers have been the top foreign buyers in the United States both in units and dollar volume of residential housing for six years straight. ... In the United States, there is little if any customer due diligence by real estate agents.”
While cash is sometimes laundered directly through legitimate businesses, as governments have cracked down on those operations, cartels have sought less detectable methods — methods that have also proven to be cheaper.
According to a December 2020 Reuters report, Chinese “money brokers” are one of the most worrisome threats. Money brokers can move large sums of currency “quickly and quietly” from the United States to China and then to Mexico with “a few clicks of a burner phone and Chinese banking apps.”
“It’s the most sophisticated form of money laundering that’s ever existed,” one source said in that story.
The technique is known as mirroring.
The Reuters story uses testimony from the trial of a money launderer, Gan Xianbing, to explain the process. Lim Seok Pheng, who worked for Gan, testified at his trial that she would collect drug money — from $150,000 to $1 million at a time — at one of several U.S. cities. A cartel member would pass along information for Lim to rendezvous with someone in a public place, and she would give a serial number for an authentic $1 bill. When she’d meet up with the contact, she’d hand over that bill as a receipt.
Lim and the contact would go to an area business, where she would give the details of a bank account in China to a person at the business. The businessperson would take possession of the U.S. currency as the equivalent number of yuan is transferred from a Chinese account they own into another account in China. The funds become available in an account in China without any physical or digital paper trail in America.
That money can be transferred between accounts in China without any scrutiny since Chinese authorities aren’t aware of the money’s origin.
Next, the money goes from China to Mexico. The same mirroring technique is often employed on that end to get the money into the hands of a launderer’s client.
Since the beginning of the cryptocurrency craze, Bitcoin has also provided an avenue for money laundering. During a webinar hosted by Justice Clearing House, DEA Special Agent Michael “Vince” Kersey with the El Paso Intelligence Center said the use of Bitcoin by drug trafficking organizations has increased “big time.” But he also said that even with the advent of cryptocurrency, COVID presented a unique challenge for those organizations looking to launder bulk cash since businesses they moved money through were shut down along with the rest of the country.
“A lot of these businesses that were used for money laundering over the last year have been closed or haven’t been accessible, so that bulk currency has been floating around out there or they’ve been trying to find alternate methods to launder it,” Kersey said, adding that the situation led to an increase in bulk currency transfer, and therefore an increase in seizures, during the pandemic.
Given Hollywood’s fascination with drug trafficking organizations and the investigators who work to stop them, it’s easy to romanticize the job of narcotics agents and detectives, but even for those who police the highest reaches of the cartel, the job requires patience, focus and time — a lot of time.
As traffickers and dealers try everything they can to avoid law enforcement detection, sometimes all officers can do is watch, wait and slowly build the case. Traffickers can be proactive in their operations, but law enforcement, by nature, must be reactionary.
“It’s not running and gunning like Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys in Miami where we’re having gunfights in the streets,” Henderson County Sheriff Lowell Griffin said. “So much of it now is just tedious, very time-consuming work.”
Investigators can have a full understanding of how a drug trafficking conspiracy may work, but it can take months to get enough concrete proof to move on that information. Officers must also keep up with technology, including how traffickers communicate and transact through digital encrypted means like Venmo, CashApp, WhatsApp and Signal, all of which require a signed search warrant to obtain data.
Getting a judge to sign off on a warrant typically requires dozens of hours of surveillance and interviews, documenting everything every step of the way. If that work yields enough information to generate probable cause, the warrant can be authorized.
If not, it’s on to the next lead.
Surveillance is monotonous, as it can require long shifts at all hours of the day or night, sometimes without anything noteworthy happening. In some instances, if there’s activity like suspected drug dealing, investigators may pull over someone leaving a location to see if they either have anything illegal in plain view or any information to offer, but that can be hit-or-miss.
“It takes a lot to develop probable cause so that you can get a judge to sign off on entering somebody’s private property and searching through their belongings,” Griffin said. “It’s a ton of surveillance.”
Sometimes, hard work pays off. Deputy James Hurn is one of Henderson County’s narcotics investigators. He said he’s worked months to develop probable cause for search warrants that have led to up to 18 pounds of meth being seized.
Sometimes, investigators might even find more than they expect.
“One time, we picked up a duffel bag that we thought had drugs in it. It was really heavy, and we opened it up, and it was over $100,000 in cash,” Hurn said. “That just blew our mind.”
A difficulty former Sheriff Holland said Macon County deputies face is stopping traffickers coming up U.S. 441 through Rabun County, Georgia, into North Carolina. They must have a reason to stop a suspected drug trafficker if they don’t have a warrant, but to get to that point, there must be good intel pointing to a specific vehicle, and then deputies have to actually spot it.
The problem is, while U.S. 441 is heavily traveled, there are 31 other roads that lead into Macon County.
Traffickers aren’t blind to the fact that they may have the law watching them. Even novice traffickers will have one or two other vehicles go ahead of them to either act as decoys or go miles ahead to watch out for potential traps.
“We’ve had that happen,” said former Macon County Lt. Dani Burrows, who headed up the office’s criminal investigation division prior to retiring at the same time as Holland. “They left Georgia, and we knew they left. But they didn’t come back this way because they got word, so they were actually intercepted over in Gilmer County. They were gonna come in Murphy way.”
Over in Henderson County, the oft-congested I-26 causes headaches for Griffin and his deputies.
“Even officers that are skilled in interdiction can’t get anything stopped because there’s nowhere to stop,” he said. “Half the time, it’s bumper-to-bumper, so even if you spot what you believe is a person of interest, we can’t do much.”
Those kinds of issues are also prevalent at the nation’s southern border. With about 90% of the drugs coming across the border through legal ports of entry, often transported by U.S. citizens, several sources SMN spoke with said only about 10% of vehicles are screened, and the time to inspect them is limited.
Murphy said the DEA’s best source of intel to obtain probable cause is its informants.
“There’s no secret the biggest investigative asset DEA has … is the network of confidential human assets that we have worldwide,” he said.
Gaining off-the-record intel is one thing, but admissible evidence is different. Most of the drug cases U.S. Attorney King’s office handles are tied to a Mexican drug cartel. She said one challenge at that level is getting people to testify in court, considering the promise of violence witnesses face — including violence against innocent loved ones.
“Their families may be at risk,” King said.
Sharing is caring
Intel isn’t much good unless it’s shared. Jurisdictional boundaries can’t be crossed by law enforcement, but they are crossed daily by traffickers. Silberman said it’s important that divisions within APD know what others may be looking for. For example, a vigilant patrol officer might have the chance to collect evidence crucial to an ongoing case. Silberman gave an example where a patrol officer pulls someone over and discovers a trafficking quantity of drugs.
“What if the car has some weight in it?” Silberman hypothesized. “If the officer has paid attention to what we’ve asked them to do, they’ll snatch his cell phone and get it in airplane mode.”
Data from that phone can go to the APD detective who works with the DEA, and information relevant to any number of investigations may be found.
In Macon County under Holland, there was also always consideration of what another department might find valuable.
“We [had] a Franklin police officer that works every day with our drug officers,” Holland said. “So those two communicate any information that we get … you’ve got to have that communication taking place with somebody that’s here 24/7.”
Local intel also goes up to federal agencies, especially the DEA, which oversees every multi-state drug taskforce. Like the Asheville Police Department, sheriff’s offices and some municipal departments have deputies and officers who are sworn in with the DEA and ensure information goes back and forth as needed.
Regional HIDTA offices are among the most valuable intelligence hubs. Salter said his office’s taskforce includes 135 local, state and federal agencies, all sharing information, all working toward the same mission.
“We have our intel centers that coordinate all the information coming in and coming out,” he said. “We’re kind of a non-compete entity. We coordinate meetings and intel briefings regularly to share information.”
King talked about how necessary this kind of cooperation is to her office’s prosecutions. She said local law enforcement can uncover criminal elements that may fly under the federal radar because local law is in touch with their communities and can tell when something is off. They can act as the task force’s eyes and ears on the ground.
“They then become force multipliers,” King said.
Fighting the endless war
This year, North Carolina State Sen. Michael Lazzara, R-Onslow, introduced S189, which would strengthen the existing “Death by Distribution” law that enables district attorneys to charge a person with second-degree murder if they deliver a drug that ends up killing someone.
“Incarceration should also be used as a tool to help stop people from distributing, selling fentanyl and other drugs,” Lazzara said in a North Carolina Health News story. “And putting criminals who distribute fentanyl behind bars will help to disrupt the supply of fentanyl and send a clear message that this kind of behavior will be unacceptable.”
Ernie Lee, the district attorney for Sampson, Duplin, Jones and Onslow counties, said in that story that while he wishes there were more options for treatment, it’s also important to distinguish those who are in the throes of addiction from those who exploit others’ addiction by trafficking drugs.
“For those people out there selling drugs, I have no sympathy for them, because they are basically profiting off of others’ misery,” Lee said. “I’ve not been hesitant about prosecuting an individual for second-degree murder, where they cause the death of someone by selling drugs to them.”
Dasgupta said sudden supply disruptions, like what’s created by such bills, could have catastrophic results. People will have to find a new supplier, and that supplier could have a different product.
“Anything that makes the drugs become more variable, that’s what’s killing people,” he said.
- People suffering through addiction are often unhoused and find shelter wherever they can, like this abandoned cabin in Macon County. Bob Scott photo
Jennifer Carroll has done harm reduction research for 20 years. While working at the CDC on overdose response strategy, she wrote the agency’s technical guidance on overdose prevention. Carroll interviews people who’ve overdosed. Like Dasgupta, she said one of the most dangerous things is when a supply is disrupted.
“100% of the time they were like, ‘I couldn’t find my number-one guy, so I went to the number-two guy’ or they had to go to another source” she said.
Carroll said she also worked with first responders in New Hampshire, where she found something similar.
“Any time there’s a big bust they have to double up naloxone because everyone’s more likely to overdose,” she said.
It takes cooperation from other countries’ governments to craft and enforce drug policies at the federal level. Murphy, who has extensive experience working in Mexico, said this is the lowest level of cooperation he’s ever seen from that country’s government and believes it’s due to a combination of corruption through bribes and the very real threat of harm — plato o plomo.
“The Mexican government is not willing to take on the cartels in their country,” he said. “They know what’s going on. They know about the shipments coming in because we literally tell them.”
On March 24, when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked at a Senate hearing whether drug cartels control parts of Mexico, he responded, “I think it’s fair to say yes.”
This elicited a fiery response from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
“That is false, it’s not true. ... There is nowhere in the nation’s territory where authorities are not present,” he said.
However, Obrador did admit that cartels had established a presence in the country’s federal regulatory agency, known as “Cofepris,” to approve imports of fentanyl precursors coming from China.
“They even had representatives in Cofepris, people lobbying inside Cofepris,” Obrador said, adding that some officials have been charged in that case.
Even harsher claims have been made against the Chinese government.
Several people SMN spoke with said China is turning a blind eye toward criminal activities, and some went as far as saying the country is aiding and abetting the shipment of fentanyl, as well as money laundering. While the Chinese government has cracked down from time to time on the criminal organizations, Murphy believes the country is happy to see those drugs — drugs which caused over 100,000 fatal overdoses in the United States last year — flood the country. He even said China is “pretty much giving away” the precursors since to them it’s not about profits, it’s about that bigger goal.
“They’re allowing us to destroy our own … it’s just wiping it out,” Murphy said. “It’s brilliant, right?”
In October of last year, a ProPublica report similar to the Reuters story on money laundering used the narrative of Chinese American gangster Xizhi Li to describe how criminal organizations use techniques like mirroring to launder money.
Many say the Chinese government was likely involved in that scheme.
Adm. Craig Faller told Congress in 2021 that Chinese launderers had emerged as the “ No. 1 underwriter” of drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, adding that the Chinese government is “at least tacitly supporting” those operations. In an interview for the ProPublica story, Faller, now retired, said China has “the world’s largest and most sophisticated state security apparatus. So there’s no doubt that they have the ability to stop things if they want to.”
“We used to have a regular dialogue with the Chinese specifically on things like money laundering, counternarcotics policies,” Assistant Secretary Todd Robinson, who leads the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told ProPublica. “And since that has stopped, it has not been clear, we’ve not really been able to get a handle on how much of this is criminal organizations and how much of it is criminal organizations connected to or suborning Chinese government officials.”
As far as action the U.S. can take, there’s an array of opinions. Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) told SMN that he believes there’s “an enormous appetite” to stop the flow of fentanyl among House Republicans, but he believes President Joe Biden is “opposed” to securing the border, noting that his budget cut money going to enforcing the southern border.
“Unfortunately, we have an obstacle in the White House who is opposed to securing the border,” he said.
Although most illegal drugs come across the border via legal ports of entry, Edwards advocated for finishing the border wall and adhering to policies already in place to curb the flow of undocumented immigrants between ports of entry.
“It wouldn’t matter what other set of laws we might pass,” he said. “It’s pointless as long as we have a president that is not insistent in observing this crisis and returning border agents to their posts and letting them do their job.”
When it comes to regional trafficking hubs like Atlanta, Edwards blamed local leaders in those cities for the crimes that occur there.
“The problem that we have is in so many metro areas, and I’ll use Asheville as an example; we’ve created a lawless situation that enables criminals to join the general population,” he said.
Derek Maltz, the retired special agent who used to head up the DEA’s special operations division, often appears on Newsmax and Fox News advocating for the United States to take the fight south of the border. He has even testified in front of congressional committees to say as much. In his interview with SMN, he said that would come in the form of a series of “precision strikes” to cripple the cartels’ ability to manufacture meth and fentanyl.
Murphy thinks the technology and funding are there to shut down the drug smuggling at the ports of entry.
“I can tell you right now that after 9/11, not a damn thing came across the border,” he said. “We shut that thing down. We just gotta have the will. There is nothing that came across. We listened to the cartels, and they were complaining. There was nobody that hated the terrorists more than them because it completely stopped business. You could not find drugs on the street anywhere, and the price went through the roof.”
While the United States didn’t completely shut down its borders following 9/11, it did implement a policy to check every vehicle — every trunk, every wheel well, every nook and cranny.
Over recent years, there’s been a robust debate around harm reduction’s role in curbing the drug crisis. Harm reduction includes a range of public health policies — from needle exchanges to safe use sites — designed to lessen the negative social and health consequences associated with various behaviors, such as drug use. Dasgupta said it will be hard to recover from the addiction crisis and begin to see the true benefits of harm reduction without first overhauling our medical system in a meaningful way that allows the people who need it most quick and cheap access to healthcare.
Dasgupta also said it isn’t fair or even realistic to have any kind of debate about harm reduction based on its current existence since he considers it so severely under-resourced. Research indicates some public health benefits from harm reduction programs, even though far more money is put into the war on drugs than the effort to keep people alive and healthy, even with President Joe Biden’s commitment to put $30 million into combatting the issue.
“They have to spend their time raising money instead of going out there and taking care of people,” he said.
Defending the endless war
Those who fight the war on drugs fervently defend it.
Officers and agents SMN interviewed take pride in their work, and many base their very identity on fighting what they believe is the good fight.
Murphy said justification for the war on drugs can be found by looking at past successes, like the DEA’s dismantling and disrupting several formidable cartels, or when legislation made it about impossible for meth cooks in the U.S. to get enough pseudoephedrine to produce their product in bulk.
However, the unintended consequence of those victories has been the ultra-violent CNGJ cartel filling the power vacuum in the first case, and the rise of super labs in Mexico that produce more addictive P2P meth in the other.
- It's hard to say what the solution for the drug epidemic looks like, but it's clear that the way things are done now isn't working, and the community continues to reflect the growing crisis. Bob Scott photo
Law enforcement officers frequently say if one life is saved, the whole effort is worth the hassle and resources. However, harm reduction advocates have the same goal, and they say there are better ways — nonpunitive ways — to go about saving lives.
And now with a more scrupulous public and a worsening drug crisis, more citizens seem to share that belief. Negative perceptions of the war on drugs are fueled by a sense that it’s not winnable, that the federal agents fighting it know it’s frivolous and the mission is more about self-preservation. Murphy believes the DEA hasn’t done a good job of letting the public know how it carries out its mission and why that mission is important.
“We were totally against the press,” he said. “The mantra was ‘it didn’t help us.’ We were successful in what we’re doing, but nobody knew what we were doing.”
To make matters worse for the DEA, in September 2020, former DEA agent Jose Irizarry pleaded guilty to 19 charges tied to his work laundering money for cartels. He admitted to taking at least $1 million in bribes and kickbacks.
Irizarry not only alleged that other federal agents, prosecutors, informants and cartel smugglers themselves were in on a “three-continent joyride” known as “Team America,” he said his participation in that ring was driven by a feeling that the war on drugs was pointless.
“We had free access to do whatever we wanted,” the 48-year-old Irizarry told the Associated Press. “We would generate money pick-ups in places we wanted to go. And once we got there it was about drinking and girls.”
Critics of the DEA called Irizarry’s statements further proof that the war on drugs is a charade. Agents firmly push back on those assertions.
“Let me let me be clear, Jose is a bad guy, so whatever he said means nothing to me,” Salter said. “It’s just laughable that he gets an article to say he did that because we’re not going to win the drug war.”
But some questions remain — is victory possible, and what would that even look like? If it isn’t possible, is there even a plan for withdrawal? When one trafficker or dealer gets arrested, someone else is ready to step up and embrace the opportunity to make money moving illegal substances. As long as the demand is constant, people will be there to provide the supply. In her book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” Beth Macy opined that “You whack one [dealer], and the others just pop right up, like Whac-A-Mole.”
Sheriff Griffin put it another way.
“It’s kind of like we’re running around trying to put out fires, but we’ve got a whole segment of the population ahead of us setting fires,” he said.
Carroll believes that while the war on drugs as it’s being fought now isn’t logically consistent, it does have a strong emotional appeal for people, especially amid high overdose rates.
“It taps into things that are important in our culture; children are important, strangers are untrustworthy,” she said.
Dasgupta said it’s important to enter into the complicated debate with an understanding of how people become addicted and how often it’s a matter of circumstance, whether that’s a lack of economic opportunities in rural America or mental health issues tied to previous trauma. To end the war on drugs, the system must stop pushing people into vulnerable situations, he said.
“The ones who end up with drug use problems that are debilitating tend to have other things going on in their lives,” he said. “There’s another reason why the demand for opioids has increased, including social isolation and painful conditions that patients can’t get treated at the doctor’s office anymore. We here in North Carolina mix up all those stories.”
Many have called to legalize marijuana, and some have argued that all drugs should be made legal, or at least decriminalized like in Portugal. In that country, if someone gets cited for a drug-related offense enough times, they are ordered to undergo treatment. Proponents of this system claim it’s the perfect balance of empathy and accountability. Carroll said we should have the conversation about how best to legalize or decriminalize drugs, but added that “coerced” treatment is flawed.
She said the best solutions often come from local communities.
Dasgupta said a difference to consider when thinking about legalizing drugs in the United States is the racial and economic disparities present and the injustices minorities continue to encounter in the country’s justice system. Portugal was already “ahead of the curve,” Dasgupta said.
“We’re starting so far behind,” he said.
For Carroll, the key to curbing the overdose epidemic is a safe source for people who use.
“We have so much effort on the war on drugs and stopping people from using and saving the children, but everyone who’s directly involved knows that it’s a supply problem,” she said. “I am interested in everybody coming home alive at the end of the day.”
However, like with the DEA’s war on drugs, the harm reduction movement leaves one large question. If the supply side of the drug crisis continues to be dominated by these powerful cartels and Americans continue to become addicted, is harm reduction a viable overall solution for the drug crisis?
Both law enforcement and harm reduction advocates hold fragments of a solution, but without a comprehensive approach and an honest conversation about the war on drugs, it seems like fentanyl and meth will maintain their stranglehold on our society — that is, until something more addictive comes along.