CRIME

Massive Utah drug bust highlights magnitude of fentanyl supply pushed by cartels

Dec 14, 2023, 4:29 AM | Updated: 8:11 am

MOAB — A huge drug bust is shedding light on just how many dangerous pills are on Utah streets.

A remarkable 66 pounds of fentanyl pills were confiscated in a traffic stop in Grand County — just one of three drug busts KSL TV has reported on in the last week. Fentanyl, heroine and crack cocaine were found by police in Cottonwood Heights. In Kane County, police seized another 100,000 fentanyl tablets, approximately 20 pounds.

a pencil with power on the point

A lethal dose of fentanyl is displayed on the point of a pencil for size reference, according to the Drug Enforcement Association. (DEA)

Grand County Sheriff’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration report a massive spike in the fentanyl supply with cartels targeting younger and younger users.

“It’s crazy the numbers that are happening, I never thought we would see numbers like this,” said Grand County Sheriff Jamison Wiggins.

The latest bust is Grand County’s biggest fentanyl bust of the year.

K-9 Zora, the newest member of the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, was on the job for a few days before she sniffed out more than 120 pounds of drugs including 36 pounds of meth, 19 pounds of cocaine and 66.6 pounds of illicit fentanyl during a traffic stop on Monday.

Two in custody for possession of over 100 pounds of illegal drugs, police say

“That is the most fentanyl I have ever seen in my career located inside of a vehicle,” Wiggins said.

He said it takes a small amount to overdose on fentanyl.

The GCSO has a new major crimes task force to deal with this type of crime.

“We’ve lost young kids before due to this fentanyl crisis and so we’re very committed to protecting not only are community but America because when these narcotics are coming through they are […] split up and going into other communities,” Wiggins said.

Deputies suspect the two people arrested, Jamie Verela, 49, and Andrea Mshel, 36, were heading to Denver. He said they are not Utah residents and were driving a truck with a Nevada license plate. A deputy pulled them over for a broken taillight.

According to the DEA, the quantity seized by Grand County deputies was enough to kill about 152,000 first-time users.

“It’s about 152,000 potential lethal doses of fentanyl from that one seizure. It’s a lot,” said Dustin Gillespie, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Rocky Mountain Field Division.

Gillespie said agents confiscated a total of 294,000 fentanyl pills throughout Utah last year, approximately the same amount discovered by deputies just on Monday.

A dog sits behind a car

Grand County Sheriff’s Office said K9 officer Zora was instrumental in a massive drug bust in December 2023. (DEA)

“So (that) one seizure compared to what my DEA officers seized here in Utah last year, they almost matched it in one seizure,” Gillespie said. “That kind of gives you context for how big this was and the volume of drugs that are out there.”

And they expect things to get worse.

“The Sinaloa Cartel is to blame, they are here to drive addiction in our communities, to get as many people addicted as they can. They don’t care who you are, they don’t care if you die from an overdose … demand is high and right now supply is even higher,” Gillespie said.

He said cartels from Mexico are flooding the streets with fentanyl making it more affordable than ever and opening barriers of entry for new drug dealers. Gillespie said prices have dropped drastically in the last 18 months.

Depending on location, deputies and the DEA said fentanyl prices range from $30 a pill to as little as $1.

“That’s scary, it’s clearly designed to market our youth, in a new market, and to expand their market here,” Gillespie said.

With the new rainbow-colored fentanyl, contactless dealing on social media, and this drug’s highly addictive nature, authorities say parents need to be aware.

The Utah Department of Health and Human Services says about half of all overdose deaths in Utah this year are linked to fentanyl. In the first six months of 2023, there were 137 accidental fentanyl-involved overdose deaths. By comparison, there were 184 accidental fentanyl-involved overdose deaths in 2022.

The DEA’s “One Pill Can Kill” campaign provides information and resources for parents, teachers and teens. You can find it at https://www.dea.gov/onepill.

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Massive Utah drug bust highlights magnitude of fentanyl supply pushed by cartels