Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes reports the results of an joint effort to fight the drug epidemic during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 30, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Federal law enforcers have chosen Utah to take part in a program to combat painkiller and heroin addiction.

The designation is important for Utah because it is helping the state launch a public relations campaign against powerfully addictive opiates, said Brian Besser, Drug Enforcement Administration district agent in charge. It also encourages law enforcement agencies to meet with prescribers, pharmacists and treatment centers in order to address the problem from multiple angles, he said, instead of just arresting people.

"Normally, it's compartmentalized," Besser said. The push "gets everybody under one canopy."

The yearlong "DEA 360" program already has launched in several cities across the United States, including Dayton, Ohio; Charleston, West Virginia; and Manchester, New Hampshire. It's not yet clear how much money Utah will receive. Besser said federal officers based in Washington, D.C., will evaluate Utah's progress throughout the year.

Some money already has been made available.

Utah received an initial $500,000 to create a public awareness campaign set to launch Wednesday. The push includes social media channels, a website called, billboards, community meetings and a dance performance for kids, Besser said Tuesday, ahead of a news conference announcing the program Wednesday.

The Utah program is distinct because it is the only statewide version, Besser said. Other "360" locations target cities, but Utah officials sought assistance for all of Utah, making the case that those in Utah's rural counties, not just its densely populated northern corridor, are suffering from opiate addiction.

Across Utah, 595 people died from drug overdose deaths in the year leading up to March 2017, preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control show. That's down from 710 a year earlier — a 16 percent drop.

Despite that positive news, opiates have drawn negative attention to Utah.

The synthetic opioid "pink" killed two 13-year-old boys, friends Grant Seaver and Ryan Ainsworth, in Park City in September 2016.

And on the supply side, Aaron Shamo of Cottonwood Heights has been indicted in federal court, along with four associates, for allegedly selling the powerful opioid fentanyl online, raking in $2.8 million from thousands of customers across the United States.

Under its "DEA 360" designation, Utah will continue to investigate cartels, dealers and providers who overprescribe, but won't hire more officers, Besser said.

5 comments on this story

He views the program as a "kickstart" that has already sparked early conversations among Utah legislators about chipping in to supplement the federal assistance, he said. An Opiate Task Force of advocates, legislators, doctors, law enforcement representatives and others has met since May in anticipation of the program.

Several elected Utah leaders advocated for the push to come to Utah, including House Speaker Greg Hughes, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Sen. Orrin Hatch, among others.

"We just started writing DEA leadership to say, 'What about Utah?'" Besser said. "It was just a steady stream of petitions saying, 'We need this program.' "And we got it."