‘We want to stop it’: Coast Guard, DEA explain efforts to curb drug use in Alaska
In a recent interview with KTVA, Anchorage police Capt. Bill Miller said increased drug use is part of the reason why crime is rising in Anchorage. Chief Chris Tolley said finding the source of drugs like heroin, however, is the responsibility of federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, as drugs come from outside of the Anchorage Bowl.
Before beginning his role as APD chief, Tolley was assistant special agent in charge of the DEA in Alaska. Now, Mike Root occupies that position.
“I do firmly feel that a lot of the problems that we have in Anchorage are basically drug fueled,” said Root.
Gov. Bill Walker recently declared a public health crisis because of opioid use in Alaska – a growing problem nationwide. Root said the vast majority of heroin used in Alaska is from Mexico.
“It’s not a good quality, but it’s a lot cheaper,” Root said when comparing Mexican black tar heroin to the version produced in Asia. “We don’t see the Asian heroin in Anchorage.”
The DEA can track drugs to their source. Agents follow drugs to major ports and airport in places like Washington State and California, and often on to their origin in South or Central America.
“We like to work backwards and try and get all the way back down to the source, whether it be in Mexico, or Colombia or wherever,” said Root.
DEA agents in Alaska are using a number of strategies to slow drug use. For instance, it recently started a “tactical diversion squad,” which finds doctors and pharmacists giving prescriptions they should not. It also tracks down people who take advantage of doctors.
“Is this a legit pain that they’re asking for medicine for, or are they going to turn this over and try to make money off that prescription?” said Root.
The DEA also hosts the “drug take-back” event, which collects and destroys old prescription drugs to prevent them from being used inappropriately. He said agents also visit schools to educate kids on the dangers of drug use.
“We are attempting to work on this problem, and we are going to take action against those that are putting these things on the street that are harming our families and our kids,” said Root.
He said heroin and methamphetamine often arrive by air through parcels on services like UPS or FedEx. However, drugs can also be smuggled in through Alaska waters. The Coast Guard Investigative Service Alaska tracks down smugglers.
“My agents are deployed throughout the state. But geographically, because of the distance that we have to cover, it takes a lot of effort and it’s very challenging,” said Randal Thompson, the special agent in charge of the local investigative service. He said there are eight agents statewide responsible for covering a total of 44,000 miles of coastline. Thompson said drugs can be found in both large, urban ports and small fishing villages, and smugglers’ methods are constantly evolving.
“If you can think of a way, they can think of it, too. And that’s the challenge for us,” he said. “It causes us to be creative.”
The Coast Guard agents are also responsible for finding people who work in maritime industries who are using or selling drugs.
Like Root, Thompson said he and his colleagues are dedicated to solving the drug problem.
“We want to stop it and we’re doing everything we can,” said Thompson.
According to Alaska State Troopers’ 2015 annual drug report, Statewide Drug and Alcohol Enforcement Unit officers arrested more people for heroin and meth than any other drug except marijuana. There were 225 meth arrests in 2015 and 233 heroin arrests, according to the report.
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