SALT LAKE CITY — So far this year, federal authorities have prosecuted a heroin trafficking gang, a pill doctor, an oxycodone distributor and have a case pending against another dealer.
But U.S. Attorney John Huber said going after dealers and doctors isn't the only way to stem the tide of opioids that are killing people in Utah.
"We cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of this heroin epidemic. There is an insatiable appetite in Utah for pain pills and for heroin," he said. "We have to address this as a community."
Huber and FBI, DEA, IRS and Utah Department of Public Safety administrators highlighted the problem at a news conference Thursday. They called on residents to drop off leftover medications at various Utah police departments and grocery stores as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration-sponsored national take-back initiative Saturday.
Utah Department of Health data show 60 percent of Utahns didn't use all of their prescribed painkillers the past year, but only 27 percent disposed of the leftovers.
In 2014, 300 Utahns died from prescription drug overdoses, ranking the state fourth highest in the nation, according to the health department.
"That's not a characteristic we should be proud of. It's not a characteristic that we should brush under the rug," Huber said.
Officials said they don't know how many heroin-related deaths occur each year in Utah.
People who first become addicted to pricey painkillers often turn to less expensive heroin.
Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires said police years ago didn't see much heroin, and when they did, it was among hard-core drug abusers. Now it's once-productive members of the community turning to heroin for the opioids they were previously getting with prescriptions, he said.
A 30-milligram pain pills goes for about $1 per milligram on the street, said John Eddington, DEA acting special agent in charge.
In January, Las Vegas doctor Simmon Lee Wilcox was convicted of illegally distributing oxycodone in the St. George area. "Although cloaked in the admirable jacket of a doctor, he is no better than a dealer of heroin on the street corner," Huber said.
Wilcox wrote 618 prescriptions resulting in 74,000 30-milligram pills being dispensed for nonmedical purposes from July 2010 to March 2013. The prescriptions were written for people using false identification and were filled in pharmacies in Utah and Nevada.
"It doesn't take much math to realize the profit potential that stems from that," Eddington said.
Federal agents and Salt Lake police two years ago arrested 13 people associated with the LaRaza street gang, which FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart called a classic case of a gang morphing into a drug trafficking organization. Some of them are in prison, on probation or awaiting sentencing on heroin distribution charges.
"They're following the profit that is borne of the misery of addiction, and unfortunately I think it is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
Barnhart also said heroin addiction has fueled about 90 percent of bank robberies in the Salt Lake area the past 18 months.
The IRS is involved in drug trafficking cases to trace the money and bring money laundering charges, said Mike Brock, IRS assistant special agent in charge.
Brandon Lomack, of Las Vegas, was sentenced to three years in prison last week for illegally distributing 13,780 oxycodone tablets in Utah and Idaho. He admitted to reinvesting money from pill sales to keep his drug distribution business going, authorities said.
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