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Coronavirus pandemic drove up the price of opioids on LI, officials say

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration New York Division DEA

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration New York Division DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan and New York State Attorney General Letitia James during a press conference in 2019. Credit: Charles Eckert

Travel restrictions and the economic lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic significantly drove up the price of opioids on Long Island, law enforcement officials and treatment providers told Newsday.

Officials said they also discovered other alarming trends: An increased presence of methamphetamines on Long Island; a rise in prescription pills made from fentanyl — a deadly synthetic opioid that officials blame for most of the fatal overdoses on Long Island in 2020; and drug dealers mixing cocaine or heroin with fentanyl, which officials say often results in deadly consequences.

What to know

  • The coronavirus pandemic drove up the price of opioids on Long Island
  • Officials found an increased presence of methamphetamine that was not common on the island before the pandemic
  • Fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid, was never in short supply but its cost jumped 15% last year

"The pandemic affected the drug trade during the past year, just like it affected legitimate businesses," said Ray Donovan, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York Division.

Social isolation, financial setbacks and the grief from death and loss during the pandemic also boosted demand for heroin, cocaine and other drugs, officials said.

"In times of uncertainty, we look for comfort," said Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, an agency that helps addicts get treatment. "There has been a great deal of anxiety during the pandemic."

Anecdotally, officials say they are seizing more methamphetamine and counterfeit prescription pills made from fentanyl, while treatment providers say they are hearing from an increasing number of people struggling with methamphetamine abuse.

The price of heroin, cocaine and other drugs jumped as much as 50% during some parts of the pandemic, Donovan said. Meanwhile, the price of a kilogram of cocaine surged more than 70% from $32,000 to $55,000 last summer, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said.

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"Society shut down, but these drug dealers and their drug dealing ramped up, fueling the crisis of drug use and overdoses during this very vulnerable time," Singas said in March after announcing the indictment of 40 defendants accused of operating a major narcotics ring.

Because of the lockdown of air, sea and rail travel, drug traffickers found themselves unable to secure the raw ingredients necessary for their operations or ship products to middlemen in New York City and on Long Island, the DEA’s Donovan said.

With fewer cars and trucks on the road in the spring and summer of 2020, traffickers also feared the chances of being stopped on a highway by police increased dramatically and traffickers turned to the U.S. Postal Service and delivery companies to conduct business.

"They have kilograms of fentanyl shipped to motels or AirBnB homes, and then send an unwitting person to pick it up," Donovan said.

Fentanyl was one drug that was never in short supply, according to authorities, although Donovan the price of the drug jumped 15% last year.

It is compact and extremely potent, easy to hide in the massive pipeline of goods between this country and China, which supplies most of the fentanyl imported into the United States, authorities said.

Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini warned in a May 2020 statement that Long Island drug dealers were lacing cocaine with fentanyl to drive up profits.

Last month, Sini said that dealers are selling counterfeit Oxycodone and Xanax pills pressed from fentanyl and urged young people to be wary of supposed prescription drugs purchased from illicit sources.

In February, a former NYPD officer who Suffolk prosecutors said provided fentanyl to a man who later died from an overdose pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other charges. Joseph Recca of West Islip had approximately 100 fentanyl pills marketed as Oxycodone when he was arrested in July 2020.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said drug dealers are marketing fentanyl as prescription drugs, such as Xanax and Oxcycodone, because they come with less of a stigma than opioids such as fentanyl.

"We are getting (seizing) what we believe is Oxy and we get our results back and it is actually fentanyl," Ryder said. "The reason they are doing that is fentanyl is such an addicting substance."

Police and prosecutors said Long Island is seeing more methamphetamine than in the past because the pandemic shut down the cartels' supply of cocaine coming from Colombia.

So Mexican drug cartels operating out of the United States, according to the DEA’s Donovan, beefed up the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine across the country during the pandemic. Raw materials are cheap and easily obtained even as the pandemic shut down transnational traffic.

"It has never been that big on Long Island, but anecdotally, we are now seeing a lot of it," said Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Family and Children’s Association in Mineola, which provides drug counseling and support.

Law enforcement officials are seeing the same thing.

"We are very much focused on methamphetamine," Sini said. "We see a significant rise in the use and seizure of methamphetamine across the country, and we are keeping a close eye on it in Suffolk County."

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