HERMISTON — The Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team arrested 21 suspects in the dealing and manufacturing of fentanyl throughout Umatilla and Morrow counties as a part of Operation West County Blues on Monday, Oct. 12.
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts, head of the local anti-drug board, said the operation was intended to address and bring attention to the prevalence and danger of the drug.
“Our intent of this operation was to show the prevalence and the need for the Oregon Legislature to take a good hard look at what’s going on in Oregon,” he said.
Roberts said the operation had been underway for “the better part of a year” and involved roughly two dozen agencies in the region. A press release indicated another 13 suspects were arrested prior to Oct. 12 in connection with the operation, making a total of 34 people who have been arrested on a variety of possession, delivery and manufacturing charges.
The “take down” operation on Oct. 12 utilized an unidentified school in Hermiston as its command center, according to Roberts. After investigations that utilized confidential informants and controlled buys, a majority of suspects were arrested on the west side of Umatilla County or in Morrow County, while at least a few were apprehended across the border in the Tri-Cities area.
Those arrested will be prosecuted in Umatilla and Morrow counties, while some may be prosecuted federally by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office, Roberts said. In addition to the arrests, the press release said that BENT has seized more than 8,000 fentanyl pills, more than 20 firearms and more than $300,000.
“When you have an operation of this size and you’re able to seek out, locate and arrest this many offenders without a major incident, it’s really indicative of doing things the right way,” Roberts said.
Fentanyl is characterized as a synthetic opioid that is roughly 50 times more potent than heroin. The drug was initially developed in the 1960s as a pain reliever for cancer patients but has become increasingly popular for abuse over the last decade.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 31,000 people died in 2018 from synthetic opioid-related overdoses, which is an increase of roughly 10% from 2017 alone.
Local law enforcement has seen a rise in calls to service for overdoses involving the drug in the past few years, Roberts said, with his department fielding reports at least a few times a month in Pendleton. While the medication Narcan is more widely available and can be used in a nasal spray to immediately treat overdoses, Roberts said the emergence of the drug has driven additional crime in the community because those addicted seek constant access to the drug.
“What people really need to recognize with a drug like fentanyl with a relatively short euphoria is the demand is extremely high,” Roberts said.
Fentanyl can be inhaled, snorted or injected and is often mixed with other drugs, such as heroin or cocaine.
“Street level fentanyl is typically pressed into pill form, dyed, and stamped to mimic the appearance of Oxycodone in ‘pill mills,’ which resemble the clandestine methamphetamine labs that plagued Oregon in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” a press release detailing the Oct. 12 operation stated.
In 2008, research from Oregon State University concluded that Umatilla County had the highest per capita rate of methamphetamine labs and dumping sites in all of Oregon from 1997-2007.
“It was highly volatile and dangerous,” Roberts said of that period in time. “But I think from a life and death perspective, fentanyl is a greater risk.”
The Controlled Substance Act characterized fentanyl as a Schedule II drug, meaning charges of delivery and manufacturing it qualify at most as a Class B felony in Oregon — a designation Roberts believes should be reconsidered.
“We’re trying to bring attention to not only how prevalent the drug is, but the implications of leaving it as a Schedule II, or failing to develop appropriate strategies to deal with the ‘pill mills’ or the dealers and manufacturers of this drug,” he said.
Roberts said the operation will continue as some of its targeted suspects weren’t arrested on Oct. 12 and police will be providing district attorneys with any information needed for prosecuting those who were taken into custody.