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Major heroin bust a win for police, but some say it won't make a dent

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 3:45 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and members of the Metro Narcotics Task Force address their recent successes — including the seizure of 31 pounds of heroin destined for the streets of Salt Lake City — at a press conference at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Salt Lake City District Office on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the course of six months, the Metro Narcotics Task Force confiscated the equivalent of 24 years' worth of heroin destined for Salt Lake's streets.

The task force — comprised of nine local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Salt Lake office — arrested 21 people and seized 31 pounds of heroin worth $5 million between February and mid-August, drug enforcement officials said Thursday.

As a perspective, the common street dose of heroin is 1/10 of a gram and a single-hit balloon costs between $10 and $20.

An enlarged map at the DEA's Salt Lake office, 348 E. South Temple, shows the locations of crimes in Salt Lake City, West Valley City, West Jordan, South Jordan and Sandy related to the heroin bust. Pictures from the raid show how heroin was hidden in shoe insoles and vehicle cup holders.

In the past, busts in the Salt Lake Valley were on a smaller scale, targeting users and small distributors, said Nicki Hollman, special agent in charge of the DEA's Salt Lake office. It took an average of eight years to confiscate roughly 10 pounds of heroin. Most busts of large distributors in Utah are seized in 5-pound batches. By comparison, the recent busts brought in 31 pounds.

But according to West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo, this is just the beginning.

"To say that this one seizure, this one case, has put a substantial dent in the narcotics trafficking network — absolutely not. We’re celebrating a small success here today, but the problem continues,” he said. “We took one out today. Tomorrow there’s probably going to be two more.”

The task force was created in 1993. Its goal was to identify and disrupt drug trafficking organizations, with a recent focus on disrupting heroin distribution.

"The demand for heroin is a significant public health crisis as prescription addicts seek a cheaper and more available drug in order to satisfy their addictions," Hollmann said.

The most recent raid was part of the task force's efforts to target and arrest distributors who prey on the addicted. In order to eliminate the crisis, the task force — which includes Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes — is calling for a communitywide holistic approach.

“We're not going to be able to arrest our way out of this. We’re not going to be able to simply prosecute our way out of this," Gill said. "This is something that needs to have a multi-faceted, collaborative partnership between treatment, between interdiction and most importantly, the disruption of those who would profit off the addictions of others and exploit (those) addictions. Those are the real problems and this task force really goes to the heart of that matter.”

This includes educating judges, the community and prosecutors to avoid making what Gill calls the "emotional" decision to put an addict in jail. Rather, they should follow "data-driven and research based" practices of finding treatment for the addicted to reduce the rates of recidivism.

Crimes such as vehicle and burglary thefts are often connected to those who are trying to get money to fund their heroin addiction, Burbank said. His agency recently found that 88 percent of bank robbery suspects are addicted to heroin.

"This is an epidemic that we must do something about," he said. “Until we stem the desire, the demand for product within the United States, within our own city and state, somebody will always fill that need. There is too much money to be made.”

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