Drug trafficking in Utah, counterfeit pills on the rise


Editor’s note: Reporter Cassidy Wixom recently participated in a ride-along with Utah Highway Patrol troopers who keep an eye out for motorists transporting drugs either through or into Utah. This is her first-person report.

The Utah Highway Patrol has made some major drug busts in the last few months on Utah roads, but the number of agency-reported drug violations has stayed consistent over the last five years.

As of May 23, 211,052 of 231,769 crimes against society in Utah from 2017 to May 2022 were drug related, according to data from the Utah Department of Public Safety. This includes both drug equipment violations (the paraphernalia used to facilitate ingestion of the narcotic) and drug/narcotic violations.

The total number of society crimes in Utah from 2017 to May 2022 has stayed fairly consistent, with drug related violations constituting the mass majority of the crimes. (Data and graph from the Utah Department of Public Safety)

By county, Salt Lake County had the highest number of drug violations reported at 69,964.

Utah Highway Patrol had the highest number of drug violations reported when filtered by agency, accounting for 35,908 violations across the state. In 2022 so far, the highway patrol has reported 1,523 drug related violations.

I did a ride along with Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Brent Shelby and Sgt. Jimmy Banks down in Richfield, Utah. Shelby is the commander of the criminal interdiction K9 and DUI teams and Banks is the sergeant for the K9 unit.

The interdiction team is tasked with intercepting drugs on the roads. At all times there is a trooper from the team out on duty somewhere in the state and they work in conjunction with investigators and agents. Most of the highway patrol will catch smaller, personal use drug violations and the criminal interdiction team handles the larger seizures.

Utah is the crossroads of the West as its highways connect many of the western states together. The blue lines indicate I-15 (which travels north/south across the state) and I-80 (crossing east/west on the northern half of the state). The red line is I-70 which crosses east/west for southern Utah and where reporter Cassidy Wixom did her ride along with the Utah Highway Patrol. (Map from Wikipedia)

During the ride along, I witnessed how the Utah Highway Patrol keeps the roads safe, interdicts drugs and enforces traffic laws. We patrolled along I-70 as it’s one of the major routes drug traffickers use.

Utah highways are frequently used as routes for drug trafficking because Utah is “the crossroads of the West,” Shelby said. “So I-15, I-70 and I-80 give you access to the whole country.”

Most drugs on Utah roads are just passing through to be transported to other states, Shelby said, but some are on their way to Salt Lake City to be distributed.

In just the last month, Utah Highway Patrol seized more than 930 pounds of marijuana from just three vehicles across the state, with two of the stops in Tooele on I-80 and one in Salt Lake City.

Shelby said marijuana is harvested in the fall so there is usually a spike in transportation after the harvest. However, there is a current uptick of marijuana seizures because of legalization dynamics.

“Oklahoma recently legalized it and has become a source state for marijuana. Now they can’t keep up with production for the east coast, so California is going back to being a source state and moving it back east,” he said.

How drugs are found

For a trooper to pull someone over, there has to be “reasonable suspicion a crime is occurring, will occur or has occurred,” Shelby said.

Each time he pulled someone over while I was on the ride along, there was a clear traffic violation that had occurred warranting a traffic stop. Common reasons for traffic stops include improper lane changes, following too closely, speeding or expired vehicle registration.

Even if a certain vehicle is acting suspicious on the road, Shelby said officers cannot stop someone unless they can articulate a reason for the stop.

“I don’t wanna waste your or my time. There’s too many criminals on the road doing things we want to catch,” he said, referring to how the troopers don’t randomly pull people over for fun.

Most people are nervous when they get pulled over by an officer, Shelby said, but often their nerves will dissipate once the officer points out what they were doing wrong on the road. In some traffic stops however, the officer will notice the driver (or passengers) acting suspicious and reacting weirdly to things.

Shelby said this is because most people have a moral compass and will start acting out strangely if they know they are doing something illegal such as transporting drugs or committing another crime. People will be seen as acting strange if they have incomplete stories of where they are traveling, are unable to finish sentences, are continually shifting around to be as out of sight of the officer as possible and other reactions that indicate they might be hiding something.

The Utah Highway Patrol has made some major drug busts in the last few months on Utah roads, but the number of agency-reported drug violations has stayed consistent over the last five years. During a ride along with the Utah Highway Patrol, reporter Cassidy Wixom got a behind-the-scenes look at how the patrol catches drugs being trafficked. (Cassidy Wixom)

Through talking to the citizen and assessing the situation, officers decide if there is reason to believe the driver might be harboring drugs or other illegal contraband in their vehicle. This will lead to a search of the vehicle which sometimes involves a dog sniffing the car. According to Banks, dogs in the K9 unit are trained to detect marijuana, meth, cocaine and heroin.

During the ride along I got to see a car be searched for drugs and someone be arrested for a felony because of the drugs they had on them. I sat safely in the car and was not near the arrest, but it was still exciting to see the troopers catch some illegal drugs being transported.

A lot of the time, drugs will be hidden in the trunk of the car, in jockey boxes, center consoles or within personal belongings. But drugs have been found in virtually every part of a vehicle before: inside doors, in seat cushions, in manufactured compartments, inside the gas tank and more.

Sometimes the officers will decide to bring a vehicle to another location where they can better search it for contraband rather than trying to do it all on the side of the road. One such location is the UDOT shed where they can place the vehicle on a hydraulic lift to search the underside of the car.

Banks said with every traffic stop, he tries to just help those involved the best he can whether it is by getting medical assistance and notifying family during a crash or stopping dangerous prodcuts from being dispersed.

Trends in drug trafficking

Shelby said the interdiction team typically has a smaller seizure a day, and a larger seizure each week. If the drugs only constitute a personal use amount, a citation will be issued and they continue on their way. When distributable amounts are found however, they usually arrest on-site and bring them back to the station for processing.

He said the number of drugs being smuggled is staying consistent as far as the numbers they are catching and stopping.

Because the illegal drug industry isn’t like a typical organization with set pick-up and departing times, drug trafficking is “super sporadic,” Shelby said. Some days and weeks are busier than others, but it is almost impossible to predict.

Just as the Utah Highway Patrol is always gathering intelligence to stop the drug transportation, the traffickers are doing the same to try figure out when and where the highway patrol will be, he said.

Shelby said some people might wonder why Utah is spending efforts on stopping the drug trafficking when most of the drugs aren’t ending up in Utah.

“It’s a domino effect,” he said. “If we can stop it from getting to Colorado and other places, and Arizona, Nevada do the same for us, it’s a joint effort across the whole nation.”

In small seizures it is common to have drug equipment in the car which could be indicative of the driver driving under the influence.

In most large seizures, only narcotics will be found and not drug equipment. Shelby said this is because the drug trafficking organizations don’t want the people transporting the drugs to be using the narcotics, so they don’t allow the equipment to be with them. This ensures the transporters are not under the influence and will be better drivers so they don’t make any traffic violations and are less likely to get caught.

A dangerous counterfeit

Fentanyl is the primary drug being used to make counterfeit pills on the market right now and its usage is increasing. According to a Drug Enforcement Administration fact sheet on fentanyl, it is a controlled substance similar to morphine but it is 100 times more potent.

Since 2015, the number of overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids have skyrocketed, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The number of drug overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids has skyrocketed since 2015. Fentanyl is a major counterfeit drug in the market right now and it is significantly more lethal than other drugs. (Graph from the National Institute on Drug Abuse)

A report from the Utah Department of Health showed the number of overdose deaths from fentanyl in Utah more than doubled from 2019 to 2020.

Shelby said he has seen a major surge in seizures of counterfeit opioids, the majority of which contain fentanyl. He said when the patrol first started seizing pills, they would have about 2-3% content of fentanyl. Now it’s up to about 5-7% fentanyl content in the pills.

Illicit fentanyl is manufactured in Mexico, then smuggled and distributed in the U.S. Because there is no official oversight or quality control on these pills being made, it is impossible to know just how much fentanyl is in the pills and often lethal doses are found in the pills, DEA public information officer Steve Kotecki said.

Fentanyl is incredibly dangerous, with just two milligrams constituting a potentially lethal dose. DEA lab testing revealed four out of 10 pills with fentanyl contain enough fentanyl for a potentially lethal dose. It is also frequently mixed in with other narcotics such as methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine creating an even riskier and more dangerous drug.

In September 2021, four comedians did cocaine that they didn’t realize was laced with fentanyl. Fuquan “Fu” Johnson, Enrico Colangeli and Natalie Williamson were killed and Kate Quigley was hospitalized from the fentanyl poisoning.

Kotecki said this tragic accident is sadly a common occurrence with fentanyl because “you just need so little” to be lethal.

Two milligrams of fentanyl can fit on the tip of a pencil and is all it takes to constitute a potentially lethal dose. Counterfeit pills with fentanyl in them are on the rise in the drug market. (Photo from the DEA)

The increase in fentanyl correlates with a current decrease in heroin seizures on the road because people are preferring fentanyl over heroin, Shelby said.

Kotecki agreed with this sentiment and said less heroin is being trafficked because fentanyl is cheaper to make and it is 50 times more powerful than heroin. “You get a better high from it, but it also just takes such a small amount to kill you that it’s really dangerous.”

Kotecki said fentanyl has been showing up in counterfeit Adderall and Xanax among other basic pharmacy drugs. He warns everyone to not buy any sort of pill from off the street. “If it’s a pill, unless you get it from doctors, don’t trust it,” he said.

The DEA started a “One Pill Can Kill” campaign to raise awareness about the massive danger of fentanyl and counterfeit opioids. The website has information on how to be safe with pharmacy drugs, what information to share on social media and includes pictures showing just how similar counterfeit and real pills look.

Counterfeit pills laced with deadly fentanyl are becoming more prevalent. An authentic oxycodone pill is shown on the left with a counterfeit pill on the right. (Photo from the DEA)

Fentanyl is popular not just because of its potency, but also because it has been able to surpass some of the barriers other illegal drugs face, Kotecki said. Because it is in pill form, people find it easier to use than injection drugs like heroin and it removes the stigma of “doing a dirty drug,” he said.

Drug traffickers are also using social media to sell fentanyl and counterfeit pills, Kotecki said. This makes it so with just a few clicks, no in-person interaction and payment through Venmo or another cash app, someone can have drugs delivered relatively easy to them.

“You don’t have to go the bad area of town to get drugs. You can do it from the safety of your own home,” Kotecki said. He stressed how dangerous this can be especially for the younger generation who spend lots of time on social media.

He suggested people educate themselves on some of the social media trends and “emoji codes” drug traffickers are using so they can keep themselves safe. He also advises everyone to avoid all pills you don’t have absolute certainty are safe.

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