Knoxville — Knox County's synthetic opioid problem has gotten so bad it'll be the subject of stepped-up federal cooperation in a new initiative announced Thursday by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The project targets 10 U.S. prosecutorial districts including the Eastern District of Tennessee. Going after even small, street-level drug cases can curtail overall synthetic opioid distribution, Sessions said in making the announcement.
Within the district, Knox County itself will get specific attention, according to authorities.
The Knox County District Attorney General's Office estimates 165 people have died of a drug overdose so far this year. Drug overdoses occur daily in Knox County.
“The question gets asked, 'Why are people using fentanyl when they know how deadly it is?' and the answer is pretty easy...it’s because they don’t know they’re doing it," said Sgt. Josh Shaffer with the Knoxville Police Department.
“The folks that are selling it don’t know what it is and the folks that are using it don’t know what it is most of the time. They don’t know until it’s too late," Shaffer said.
Synthetics such as fentanyl are especially potent and often deadly in very small doses. In recent years, medical authorities blame them for an increasing number of overdose deaths in Tennessee.
Sessions' initiative is called Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, or S.O.S. It focuses on 10 districts in the U.S. with obviously high drug overdose death rates.
According to U.S. Attorney Doug Overbey's office in Knoxville, the aim is to "prosecute every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues and other synthetic opioids regardless of drug quantity."
Fentanyl prosecutions are numerous in Knox and other area counties in state courts.
Success by U.S. prosecutors in Manatee County, Fla., proved the inspiration for the new program, according to Sessions.
According to a statement from Overbey, federal prosecutors in Knoxville will work with federal law officers as well as state and local police and law enforcement agencies "to prosecute every readily provable case involving the distribution of synthetic opioids in Knox County, regardless of drug quantity."
Manatee County is south of Tampa. Officials there began seeing a sharp increase in drug deaths in 2015. In 2016, local police saw street-level distribution of fentanyl and carfentanil for the first time, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Federal prosecutors in the district began going after every "provable" drug case involving synthetic opioids. From July 2016 to the end of 2017, overdoses fell 77 percent and deaths dropped by 74 percent, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Besides the Knoxville area district the others taking part are the Northern and Southern Districts of Ohio; the Eastern District of Kentucky; the Southern and Northern Districts of West Virginia; the Maine District; the Eastern District of California; the Western District of Pennsylvania; and the New Hampshire District.