Opioid seizures in the Fort Smith region have risen, and authorities are taking steps to address it.
Members of the 12th and 21st District Drug Task Force, which includes Sebastian and Crawford counties, took more pharmaceutical pills and heroin off the streets in 2018 than in 2017. The jump has prompted officials to enhance their enforcement efforts while still recognizing the issue is not entirely a criminal one.
"We’re going to continue to work with other people, with others who have a vested interest in it," said Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe Runion.
The Fort Smith region in recent years has been impacted by measures taken both locally and on a state level to prevent opioid addiction and trafficking. The Arkansas Medical Board in April 2018 passed regulations to require doctors to justify opioid prescriptions that exceed more than 50 morphine milligram equivalents. Sebastian County in 2017 fell from 169 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people in 2016 to 153.1, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents in November searched Gaby and Hinderliter pain clinics in the Fort Smith area after an investigation concluded the two doctors allegedly prescribed nearly 2 million prescription pills over two years, some of which ended up on the streets or were tied to overdose deaths.
But Drug Task Force members in 2018 seized 3,412 pharmaceutical pills — a 19 percent increase from 2017.
"There are 99 percent good doctors out there who are trying to treat their patients who are in pain, who need some kind of relief, and you have an overwhelming number of patients who are chronic pain sufferers who are out there who are just trying to get some relief from that horrific pain," Drug Task Force Director Paul Smith said. "What we’re trying to do is reach all of those outlier doctors, those who are rogue, and say to them, 'You’re an aberration, you’re not going to be tolerated.'"
"The more arrests and convictions we can get for that, I think the better it’s going to be," Runion said.
Drug Task Force members also seized 311 grams of heroin, which was more than eight times the amount seized in 2017, according to records. Smith said about 250 grams of the heroin seized in 2018 was from one case in the final months of the year from a source out of California.
Smith said factors such as the heightened price of heroin in the Fort Smith region and the prescribing crack down could have contributed to this rise. It does not reflect the estimated 40 percent of respondents in Sebastian and Crawford counties who have told investigators heroin is in the area, he said.
"We sadly knew this was going to be a cheaper alternative for those individuals who were opioid dependent," he said. "They were going to start reaching out for this."
On the enforcement side, Smith said he is reaching out to agencies at every level to address the heroin influx.
"(We're) letting them know, 'If you hear anything about heroin, that’s our primary focus, that’s what we’re after,' so we can hopefully nip it before it starts to explode and expand," Smith said.
Smith also said the Drug Task Force will work with pharmacists to prevent fraudulent prescriptions from getting filled.
"They’re always our first line of defense," Smith said of pharmacists.
Outside of enforcement, Runion said officials need to focus on getting people who are addicted to opioids to treatment.
"A lot of them do not end up in any sort of rehab or even show up on our radar until they’re arrested or they overdose," Runion said, noting that he believes most people in Sebastian County would say adequate treatment for opioid addiction is not in the region.
"Right now, there’s a lot of discussion on if we treat it as a medical issue or as a criminal issue. Obviously, from the law enforcement side, that’s what we deal with, but the reality is, we know we’re dealing with both," he said. "So I think (we should be) getting the community behind that and realizing that may get some help for these people."