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Heroin, Fentanyl Overdoses Rise as Part of Opioid Epidemic

Article Updated July 28, 2017                        “Public Health Crisis of Historic Proportions”                                                                                           

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On December 6, 2016, United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg announced results from the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), the comprehensive annual assessment providing “a national-level perspective of the illicit and remarkably dangerous drug threats facing the United States.” In a DEA press release, Rosenberg said that the report reconfirmed that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl are killing people in the country at “a horrifying rate.” Rosenberg said the country faces “a public health crisis of historic proportions.”

According to the NDTA, heroin overdose deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014. The 2016 NDTA found that Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) continue to act as the biggest criminal drug threat to the United States and are the primary suppliers of heroin as well as cocaine and methamphetamine.

The 2016 NDTA found that deaths in the “synthetic opioids” category rose 79 percent from 3,097 in 2013 to 5,544 in 2014. Public health officials maintained that fentanyl is contributing to most of this increase, as fentanyl is sometimes added to heroin batches, or mixed with other adulterants and sold as counterfeit heroin, unknown to the user.

Fentanyl is a Schedule II synthetic opioid that was originally developed to serve as both an analgesic (painkiller) and an anesthetic, but its strong opioid properties made it an attractive drug of abuse. The 2016 NDTA states that illicit fentanyl, “likely manufactured in Mexico or China and then smuggled into the United States, is responsible for the current overdose epidemic.”

Arizona was featured prominently in the 2016 NDTA, as the assessment noted Mexican TCOs utilize remote, inhospitable desert valleys in the state’s West Desert corridor to transport illicit drugs to Phoenix and Tucson for further distribution. The 2016 NDTA also noted that drug smuggling groups associated with Mexican TCOs often use lookouts on elevated locations to direct crossborder smuggling activities across the Arizona desert.

Additionally, some street gangs in Arizona have direct connections to Mexican TCOs, according to the 2016 NDTA. In October 2015, one county sheriff’s office deputy in Arizona conducted a traffic stop of a vehicle and seized 14 pounds of fentanyl, five pounds of heroin, and 15.5 pounds of cocaine. In March 2016, the Arizona Daily Independent reported that the 14 pounds of fentanyl was classified as cocaine by appearance.

Heroin Arrests in Arizona on the Rise

Phoenix-Criminal-Defense-Attorney-2-300x225On November 3, the Arizona Daily Star reported that more than 100 law enforcement personnel from a dozen federal, state, and local agencies were involved in the arrests of 16 people connected to a local drug trafficking organization suspected of distributing and selling heroin as well as marijuana and various firearms. Doug Coleman, special agent in charge of the DEA in Arizona, told the Daily Star that the organization had moved more than $1 million worth of heroin, marijuana, and firearms from the Tucson area to several states on the East Coast since 2015.

According to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission 2012 -2015 State Strategy, the 265 heroin arrests in fiscal year 2011 represented a more than 50 percent from the 176 arrests for heroin offenses in fiscal year 2008. The Arizona Department of Public Safety said in its 2012 annual report that 11,000 dosage units of heroin had been seized in Arizona that year.

The rise in heroin use nationally has largely been attributed to people who have become addicted to prescription painkillers, which are opioid drugs. Because these prescription painkillers can often be quite expensive, heroin is viewed a cheaper—albeit illegal—alternative.

Fentanyl has become a more common substance abused by heroin users because fentanyl not only looks like heroin, but is actually much stronger. Dealers can lace their heroin with fentanyl without a user being able to tell, and the mixture can be incredibly problematic because a person who does not know that their product has been laced with fentanyl can easily overdose on a very small amount.

On June 21, KPNX reported that Arizona DEA agents uncovered what was believed to be the nation’s first Spice (a popular form of synthetic marijuana) lab using Fentanyl. According to KTAR, more than 700 fentanyl-related overdoses were reported to the Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2013 and 2014.

Article Update

On June 5, 2017 Arizona’s Governor, Doug Ducey declared a State of Emergency on June 5, 2017 for the opioid epidemic. The state reported 790 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016. This number represented a 74 percent increase over the preceding 5 years.

The emergency declaration included the following orders:

  • That a State of Emergency exists in Arizona;
  • Authorization to coordinate and use assets and resources of Arizona Department of Emergency and Military affairs for implementation of a response and recovery plan;
  • Supervision by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) over issues related to the public’s emergency response;
  • Emergency rulings by the Attorney General to expand guidelines, education, and training for medical providers and prescribers of opioids.
  • Training of law enforcement for the handling, transport, and administration of Naloxone, the life-saving opioid overdose drug.
  • Reporting and recommendations to the Governor’s office for legislative actions within the next 90 days.

On July 24, 2017 the ADHS reported the following updates which have occurred since the State of Emergency became effective June 5, 2017:

  • 1,100 possible opioid overdoses including 146 deaths;
  • Administration of 820 Naloxone doses outside of emergency rooms and hospitals;
  • 1400 Naloxone kits ordered for 14 law enforcement agencies;
  • 983 first responders completed training;
  • Arizona opioid prescribing guidelines in progress

These developments are being followed closely and future updates will be added.

Arizona Heroin and Fentanyl Laws

Heroin is classified as a dangerous drug under Arizona Revised Statute § 13-3401.6.21(m). Under Arizona Revised Statute § 13-3407, a person can face the following charges if he or she knowingly does any of the following:

  • Possesses or uses heroin — Class 4 felony punishable by a minimum of five years up to 15 years in prison for a first offense and a minimum of 10 years up to 20 years in prison for a subsequent offense;
  • Possesses heroin for sale — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of five years up to 15 years in prison for a first offense and a minimum of 10 years up to 20 years in prison for a subsequent offense;
  • Possesses equipment or chemicals, or both, for the purpose of manufacturing heroin — Class 3 felony punishable by a minimum of five years up to 15 years in prison for a first offense and a minimum of 10 years up to 20 years in prison for a subsequent offense;
  • Manufactures heroin — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of five years up to 15 years in prison for a first offense and a minimum of 10 years up to 20 years in prison for a subsequent offense;
  • Administers heroin to another person — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of four years up to 12.5 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of four years up to 35 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Obtains or procures the administration of heroin by fraud, deceit, misrepresentation or subterfuge — Class 3 felony punishable by a minimum of 2.5 years up to 8.75 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of 2.5 years up to 25 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Transports for sale, imports into Arizona, or offers to transport for sale or import into this state, sell, transfer or offer to sell or transfer heroin — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of five years up to 15 years in prison for a first offense and a minimum of 10 years up to 20 years in prison for a subsequent offense.

It is important to note that Arizona Revised Statute § 13-3401.36(a) establishes the threshold amount of heroin as one gram. A person who allegedly possesses more than a single gram of heroin can thus be legally presumed as having intent to sell and face much more serious criminal penalties.

Fentanyl, meanwhile, is classified as a narcotic drug under Arizona Revised Statute § 13-3401.20(pp). Under Arizona Revised Statute § 13-3407, a person can face the following charges if he or she knowingly does any of the following:

  • Possesses or uses fentanyl — Class 4 felony punishable by a minimum of 1.5 years up to 3.75 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of 1.5 years up to 15 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Possesses fentanyl for sale — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of four years up to 12.5 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of four years up to 35 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Possesses equipment or chemicals, or both, for the purpose of manufacturing fentanyl — Class 3 felony punishable by a minimum of 2.5 years up to 8.75 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of 2.5 years up to 25 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Manufactures fentanyl — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of four years up to 12.5 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of four years up to 35 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Administers fentanyl to another person — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of four years up to 12.5 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of four years up to 35 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Obtains or procures the administration of fentanyl by fraud, deceit, misrepresentation or subterfuge — Class 3 felony punishable by a minimum of 2.5 years up to 8.75 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of 2.5 years up to 25 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender;
  • Transports for sale, imports into Arizona, or offers to transport for sale or import into this state, sell, transfer or offer to sell or transfer fentanyl — Class 2 felony punishable by a minimum of four years up to 12.5 years in prison for a first offense and sentences for subsequent offenses ranging from a minimum of four years up to 35 years in prison for subsequent offenses, depending on the categorical classification of the alleged repeat offender.

The court will take into consideration several additional factors relating to the alleged offense when considering a person’s sentence. Some aggravating factors that may impact the length of an alleged offender’s prison sentence include any use, threatened use, or possession of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument during the commission of an alleged crime.

What to Do Following an Arrest for Heroin or Fentanyl

If you happen to be arrested in Arizona for any kind of alleged heroin or fentanyl-related offense, it is in your best interest to exercise your right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment. Even when you are completely certain of your innocence, you should still avoid saying anything to authorities until you have legal representation.

Alleged offenders accused of heroin and fentanyl crimes often have different defenses depending on the specific circumstances surrounding their arrests. When police officers charge people with drug possession based on an alleged offender’s constructive possession—meaning that the heroin or fentanyl was not in the actual possession of the alleged offender but that person had knowledge of and the ability to maintain dominion and control over it—of the controlled substance, it is not uncommon for the people accused of the crimes to prove that the drugs belonged to someone else.

In several other cases, authorities seize heroin or fentanyl through unlawful searches or seizures. Such tactics are violations of the Fourth Amendment rights of alleged offenders and often lead to criminal charges being dismissed.

As the aforementioned case involving fentanyl misidentified as cocaine demonstrates, police officers may also charge people with possessing drugs when the substances involved were not actually the illegal drugs they were charged with possessing.

While these are just a few of the most common defenses to criminal charges involving heroin and fentanyl, it is important to remember that every case is different. Your own arrest may have involved unique circumstances that provide for other defenses that are not as commonly utilized in other alleged drug crimes.

The general rule for any arrest involving heroin or fentanyl is that the alleged offender should retain legal counsel as soon as possible.

Criminal Defense Attorney for Opioid, Heroin and Fentanyl Crimes in Mesa, AZ

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Were you recently arrested in the greater Maricopa County area for any kind of alleged crime involving heroin or fentanyl? You should contact the Law Office of James E. Novak as soon as possible.

Tempe criminal defense lawyer James E. Novak understands the most effective ways to challenge these types of criminal charges because of his previous experience as a former prosecutor in Maricopa County. He will stand up to protect your rights and fight to possibly get the charges reduced or dismissed.

The Law Office of James E. Novak aggressively defends individuals all over Maricopa County, including represents clients in Chandler, Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, Gilbert, and many other surrounding areas. James E. Novak is committed to helping every one of his clients achieve the most favorable outcomes to their cases that result in the fewest possible penalties.

You can have our attorney provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (480) 413-1499 or fill out an online contact form to schedule a free, confidential consultation.

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