Policing fentanyl: Criminal justice efforts extend beyond Alexandria’s borders

Policing fentanyl: Criminal justice efforts extend beyond Alexandria’s borders
The APD wants the community to know that fentanyl is dangerous and often deadly. (File Photo)

By Kaitlin Murphy | kmurphy@alextimes.com

Part 2 in a series

The opioid crisis continues to plague the City of Alexandria and fentanyl is the main current culprit. Illicit distribution has led to more overdoses not just here, but all over the Commonwealth and U.S. While there are efforts across jurisdictions to educate the public and cross-agency resources for treatment, police have not been able to stop the supply chain or sales of fentanyl.

Marcel Bassett, the Alexandria Police Department’s public information officer, said cross-jurisdictional efforts are ongoing.

“We work closely with our city partners, including the Department of Community and Human Services and other organizations, with a heavy focus on educating the community on the dangers of this drug.

We have federal partners and coordinate with local jurisdictions to combat this nationwide issue,” Bassett said.

APD wants the community to know that this drug is dangerous and often deadly – and that they are doing their best to catch and prosecute dealers. From January through the end of last month, there were 12 incidents in which someone was charged with narcotics distribution and possible intent to distribute other drugs, multiple drugs and/or synthetic drugs in Alexandria.

Bassett said making a fentanyl-specific arrest is difficult and complicated.

“Fentanyl is everywhere, and unfortunately, there is no way to separate or declare a fentanyl arrest from other drug arrests unless the substance has been drug tested by a lab,” Bassett said. “One of the dangers of fentanyl is that it can be packaged and masked to look like legal prescription narcotics or be added to other drugs like marijuana.”

Last month regional law enforcement scored a significant success when a major fentanyl distributor was sentenced. In a May 10 press release from the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney’s Office, headlines announced “Alexandria Man Sentenced for Fatal Fentanyl Trafficking Conspiracy.”

Reza Hashemi, 34, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to distribute 400 or more grams of fentanyl which resulted in the death of a young woman on May 28, 2021.

“Hashemi was identified following the October 24, 2020, overdose death of a 22-year-old male, J.V., in Vienna,” the news release said. “Hashemi admitted to distributing pressed counterfeit pills containing fentanyl to J.V. During the course of the investigation into J.V.’s death, law enforcement approached Hashmi and informed him of the death, but he did not agree to speak with them. Instead, Hashemi continued to distribute fentanyl.”

This case highlights the reality that the distribution is wide-reaching across the region.

Prosecuting these crimes is complex as many jurisdictions get involved due to the nature of porous borders. In Virginia, law enforcement agencies are independent of the prosecutor’s office in most drug cases. Police will investigate locally and bring charges on their own without working with the prosecutor. Then, once the arrests are made, the prosecutor gets involved and contacts the detective to get evidence, discuss the case and decide the next appropriate steps.

Factors such as prior crimi- nal records, the quantity of alleged drugs in possession, or an associated ill effect like an overdose, lead to further collaboration with the police and other narcotics units in the region. If there is a multi-juris- dictional case with fentanyl charges, communications between agencies will determine if federal involvement and outreach to the U.S. Attorney’s office might be required.

“If a federal office is appropriate to prosecute, more resources can be allocated to addressing all the criminal activity in their case. We are definitely partners and definitely speaking with our federal counterparts to combat the fentanyl crisis,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter explained.

To highlight the increasing severity of fentanyl, there are ongoing efforts to update laws within the criminal code in Virginia. Porter outlined the changes in Virginia law.

“The fentanyl crisis is a real and present public health and criminal justice issue right now. It is a huge issue not contained to the city but to the state and the nation,” Porter said.

Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill during the 2023 session that increases the penalty for selling or distributing fentanyl.

“The punishment for any person who knowingly sells, gives, or distributes at least 2 mg of fentanyl to another person without the knowledge of the receiver shall be guilty of attempted murder in the Second Degree,” the bill reads. “Any substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl would be classified as a weapon of terrorism, and any person who intentionally manufactures or distributes it would be guilty of a Class 4 felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.”

Porter praised the changes, saying it will help him prosecute fentanyl cases.

“The Assembly understands this is a real issue facing Virginia and the way to combat that is to increase charges. The law is another tool in fighting the epidemic and the amendment to the law states that anyone who distributes fentanyl is guilty of a terrorism offense,” Porter said.

Porter added that the bill also increases penalties if weapons are also used in dealing fentanyl.

“Firearms in fentanyl trafficking leads to a significant sentence. Firearms aggravate the charge,” he said.

Tracing the source of fentanyl is extremely difficult for law enforcement, Porter said.

“Very little fentanyl is manufactured in Virginia and probably most of it is from outside of the U.S. A complex network takes the fentanyl from the lab and distributes it across the county, making it challenging to get all the way back to the source,” Porter said.

Attorney General Jason Miyares successfully advocated to designate fentanyl as a weapon of terrorism in HB 1682/SB 1188. Miyares took his fight against fentanyl to the national level, calling on the U.S. Senate to ensure that all fentanyl analogs are classified as a federal substance for harsher charges. Miyares co-wrote a coalition letter urging U.S. Senate leadership to pass the HALT Fentanyl Act.

This legislation would permanently schedule all current and future fentanyl analogs as Schedule I drugs. Analog or analogue drugs are chemically similar to other illegal or narcotics or substances, such as fentanyl, although not chemically identical.

Miyares also sent a letter signed by 18 other state attorneys general demanding that fentanyl be declared a Weapon of Mass Destruction. This classification would allow the federal government to coordinate responses with multiple agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Similarly, Miyares led a 21-state coalition calling on President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to designate drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations under federal law to free up resources to confront this epidemic with the seriousness it deserves.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, both the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are actively smuggling fentanyl over the border and into Virginia. Designating the cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations would provide state and federal law enforcement agencies increased powers to freeze cartel assets, deny entry to cartel members and allow prosecutors to pursue tougher punishments against those who provide material support to the cartels.

On June 1, headlines announced Miyares’ letter urging the U.S. Senate leadership to pass the HALT Fentanyl Act immediately. In the letter, Miyares underscores the need for immediate action in combating fentanyl crimes.

“The threat of fentanyl in all its forms cannot be overstated. We’ve already seen its devastating effect on families and communities in every corner of the Commonwealth, and it has the potential to be much worse. Congress must make every current and future fentanyl analogue a Schedule I drug, as soon as possible,” the letter states.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Miyares coalition were joined in support by Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming in their petition to Senate leadership.

The Office of the Attorney General Miyares’ office also announced that it relaunched the Virginia Rules Program, a statewide school curriculum about good citizenship and updated it to cover the “One Pill Can Kill” initiative.

It was previously reported in the Times that Alexandria City High School teamed up with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Diversion Program and the Office of Student Support Teams on April 19 for a community event addressing rampant substance abuse. This workshop focused on the “One Pill Can Kill” in- formation, with more than 400 people in attendance.

“The continued goal is to get the word out and give families and the community a forum to ask questions and to know what types of questions are important to ask,” Alexandria City Public Schools Chief of Student Services and Equity Marcia Jackson, who oversees substance abuse prevention programs at ACPS, explained.