Alaska State Troopers are asking the public for help in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
During a Feb. 13 briefing, Michael Duxbury, commander of the troopers Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit (SDEU), explained how drug enforcement agents are working to develop non-traditional partnerships with public health agencies, private businesses and individuals to tackle the health crisis sweeping the state.
Duxbury said law enforcement agents are working to provide training to airline carriers and meeting with members of the business community. For example, he said, troopers involved in Rotary clubs are taking their message to fellow members.
“Private partnerships are going to be the next level of what we need to do as a community in Alaska to really go after this problem that is getting worse,” he said.
He emphasized the widespread social costs of the crisis, including dangers to public health, economic losses and increased crime.
“We are seeing burglaries. We are seeing person-on-person crimes. We are seeing car thefts. We are seeing homicides all derived from drug trafficking, misuse and abuse. And it is not a private matter,” he said.
A 2017 report prepared for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority estimated that drug abuse in Alaska cost the economy $1.22 billion in 2015.
The most alarming recent trend in illicit drug use is the increase in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid with 1,000 times the strength of a dose of Oxycodone, Duxbury said.
“We are told by the folks of the street — the users — that fentanyl is part of the products they’re normally using,” he said.
The appearance of raw fentanyl in drug seizures is particularly disconcerting for law enforcement agents, Duxbury said.
“We weren’t seizing raw fentanyl before and we are now,” Duxbury said.
A recent seizure of 8 grams of fentanyl — the equivalent of two packs of sugar — would have been enough to kill 4,000 people. The assertion was based on an estimate that it would take 2 milligrams of fentanyl to cause an overdose, he said.
Duxbury said virtually all of the illicit drugs feeding the epidemic are being shipped to Alaska from overseas by cartels — who use a number of legitimate means to get them into the state, such as ferries, postal or parcel services or airlines. That makes it particularly important for those in the business community to understand the depth of the crisis.
“There are people making money of the misery of our people’s weaknesses and they are unwittingly using businesses to accomplish those tasks,” he said.
In February 2017, Gov. Bill Walker declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis and issued a disaster declaration establishing a statewide overdose response program.
Of the 128 people died from overdoses in 2017, 96 overdosed due to opioids, Department of Health and Social Services Division of Public Health Chief Medical Officer Jay Butler said during the press conference.
The opioid epidemic plaguing Alaska is not unique. In 2016, opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.