Opioid Crisis: Overdose Deaths

Overdose deaths surge past all other causes of death in New York City - In 2016, the city suffered 1,367 overdose deaths.

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Overdose deaths in New York City reached an estimated 1,300 in 2016, up from 937 in 2015, according to provisional data from the New York City Department of Health (DOH). Heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, were involved in approximately 1,100 deaths, making these narcotics the leading causes, followed by cocaine, prescription medications and other drugs.

Compare overdose deaths in 2016 to a near-record-low of 335 homicides and 230 traffic deaths in New York City that same year. While the city has made great strides in its initiatives to curb traffic deaths and homicides, much work remains to be done in reversing the alarming rise of overdose deaths. Public health and law enforcement both have essential roles to play in addressing this epidemic, as Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged when announcing the city’s new overdose prevention initiative HealingNYC.


Public health and law enforcement officials joined Mayor Bill de Blasio in announcing
the overdose prevention initiative HealingNYC.

Overdose deaths have increased for six consecutive years in all five boroughs. According to preliminary DOH data on overdoses in the five boroughs, the Bronx continues have the highest number of fatal overdoses at 279 deaths, with Brooklyn as a close second at 277. Manhattan and Queens are currently seeing the greatest increase in numbers of fatal overdoses. In Manhattan, overdose deaths increased by approximately 50% between 2015 and 2016, from 145 to 233. Queens saw a similar increase in these two years, from 144 overdose deaths to 218 last year. Staten Islanders continue to fatally overdose at the highest rate in the city. In 2016, there were 107 overdose deaths in Staten Island for a population of 470,000.

Opioid Crisis: Fentanyl


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Fentanyl has thoroughly infiltrated the drug market in New York City and is present in all five boroughs. Overdose deaths were already at an all-time high when fentanyl began appearing on the black market in previously unheard of quantities. Up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, fentanyl was involved in more than half of all fatal overdoses in the city in 2016. The vast majority of these deaths involved more than one substance, with heroin and fentanyl as the leading causes in 2016, followed by cocaine, prescription medications and other drugs.

This problem does not appear to  be driven by user preference. Interviews conducted by both law enforcement and health officials suggest users are not actively seeking fentanyl. Users simply do not know what they are buying and sellers may not know what they are selling. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), doses as small as 2 mg can be fatal. 

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly seizing fentanyl, including shipments of pure fentanyl and mixtures of fentanyl combined with a wide variety of other drugs. Often the presence of fentanyl in a drug seizure is only detected through laboratory analysis.

Much of the fentanyl found in New  York City is illicitly produced by Mexican cartels, which obtain precursor chemicals from China. Fentanyl from these clandestine manufacturing facilities is flooding the U.S. drug market. It can also be ordered from overseas sources online. This is different from the pharmaceutically produced fentanyl, used as an anesthetic or in end of life care, which is found on the black market far less frequently.

fentanyl and heroin

The size of a lethal dose of heroin as compared to fentanyl. STAT, September 29, 2016.

Fentanyl is much cheaper and easier to produce than heroin, which is an organic substance. Given the strength of fentanyl, drug traffickers stand to gain considerable profits from its sale and distribution as compared to profits from heroin.

Law enforcement agencies have witnessed large amounts of fentanyl traveling the same smuggling routes used for transporting other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Multi-kilogram shipments of the powerful narcotic are brought across the Mexican border inside cars and trucks and delivered to local trafficking groups in New York City and throughout the U.S.

The widespread saturation of the black market with fentanyl creates a new danger for law enforcement agents and officers in the field. Because it can be ingested by breathing contaminated air or through the skin, officers need to take extra precautions. Both the DEA and the NYPD have issued orders barring agents and officers from conducting field tests when they suspect fentanyl might be present.

Further complicating the crisis of fatal drug overdoses, antidotes like naloxone are not as effective with fentanyl as with other opioids. Naloxone is now widely available in New York City and has been used to save many lives, including by members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), who are trained in administering the antidote and are instructed to carry it with them. Private citizens who use drugs or who are concerned about friends or family members can also obtain naloxone at pharmacies without a prescription. However, naloxone is not a silver bullet solution. A fast-acting opioid that binds tightly to certain receptors in the brain, fentanyl can kill before there is time to administer an antidote. Additionally, multiple doses are often required.


Opioid Crisis: Cutting off the Supply

Faced with a drug epidemic, the primary responsibility of law enforcement is to protect public safety by cutting off the supply of dangerous drugs. SNP works with partners to follow the supply chain to identify the source at the highest level possible. In 2016, SNP handled cases involving the seizure of 398 kilograms of heroin (875 pounds). This is more than triple the amount of heroin seized in 2010.

heroin seizures in pounds

The overwhelming majority of heroin found in the U.S. is produced either in Colombia or Mexico. Heroin-related investigations often lead back to Mexico and the Sinaloa Cartel, which oversees transportation of the heroin overland across the Mexico-U.S. border.

Over the past year, SNP has coordinated with local and federal partners to track the source of heroin throughout the New York City area. Through the work of the Heroin Interdiction Team (HIT), the office has shared its expertise with law enforcement agencies across New York State.

heroin mill

A single-family residence in the Bronx housed one of the largest heroin mills ever dismantled by the DEA in New York City.

Once heroin arrives in New York City, it is typically handed off to local wholesalers and large-scale packaging operations that proliferate across upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Strategically located near major highways, these packaging “mills” process multi million dollar shipments for retail distribution.

Shortly before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, more than a million dosages of heroin were seized from one of the largest heroin packaging mills ever uncovered by DEA New York Division. Members of the New York Drug Enforcement Task Force (DETF) and Special Narcotics investigators conducted a court authorized search of a single-family private residence in the University Heights section of the Bronx and uncovered a fully functioning heroin mill in the basement. Agents seized 64 kilograms of heroin (140 pounds) and $300,000 cash. The drug operation supplied customers citywide.

Increasingly, fentanyl is present alongside heroin and other narcotics. Earlier this year, SNP worked with the DEA’s New York Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Strike Force and the U.S. Postal Service to dismantle a narcotics trafficking group that received drug shipments from Puerto Rico through the U.S. Mail for distribution in New York City. Some loads of narcotics were concealed in children’s games and exercise equipment. This investigation led agents to seize 21 kilograms (46 lbs.) of narcotics, initially suspected to be cocaine and heroin. However, laboratory tests indicated that at least 2 kilograms (over 4 lbs.) contained fentanyl.

Prescription drugs on the black market are also an important focus for SNP, which continues to investigate and prosecute pill traffickers, forgery rings and corrupt medical professionals who sell prescriptions for cash. Increased awareness on the part of medical professionals and regulatory changes under New York State’s I-STOP/PMP, the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing – Prescription Monitoring Program, appear to have had a positive impact. The number of prescriptions filled for oxycodone, the opioid pain medication most commonly sold on the black market, decreased by 4% in 2016. This decline is significant because the majority of people who develop heroin addictions first become dependent on prescription pills.

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New York Daily News, February 9, 2017

Oxy prescriptions filled

Gangs and Violence

The Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office works closely with the NYPD to identify and prosecute individuals designated as Violence Reduction Targets (VRTs). These defendants are violent recidivists, or known individuals who repeatedly commit acts of violence. A relatively small number of criminals, particularly those associated with street gangs, can wreak havoc on a neighborhood’s sense of security.

Violence Reduction Target Initiative

In 2016, SNP was involved in the arrest and prosecution of 42 VRTs and associates of VRTs. This accounts for 53% of the total VRT-related arrests handled by Special Narcotics since the inception of the initiative in 2014.

Among those prosecuted were individuals engaged in drug dealing at the West Brighton Houses, a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residential complex in Staten Island, and the AK Houses, a privately-owned affordable housing complex in Manhattan.

VRT arrests

Of the VRTs with pending cases, only one has been released on bail. Two subjects are in court-ordered drug treatment. The overall conviction rate on a felony charge for VRTs is 68%, with 62% receiving jail time.

GS9 Gang Prosecution

An investigation into the Brooklyn-based criminal gang “GS9” dismantled a brazen criminal group responsible for multiple shootings. While engaged in a protracted turf battle with rivals, members of GS9 murdered a 19-year-old rival inside a Brooklyn bodega, fired bullets into crowds at clubs in New York City and Miami and shot an innocent bystander in front of her home. The investigation was conducted by the NYPD’s Brooklyn South Violence Reduction Task Force and SNP’s Gang Prosecution Unit. Twenty-one firearms seized during the investigation fueled the violence at the heart of the case.

All 21 defendants charged have been convicted, including three of the main shooters for the gang. Rashid Derrisant and Alex Crandon, tried together, were sentenced to 98 1/3 years to life and 53 1/3 to life respectively. Santino Boderick was sentenced to 117 1/2 to 130 years in prison.

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New York Times, October 20, 2016

Some members of the gang performed rap as part of a well-known group, also called “GS9,” led by Ackquille Pollard, aka “Bobby Shmurda,” and Chad Marshall, aka “Rowdy Rebel.” Pollard and Marshall pled guilty to conspiracy and weapons charges and each received a seven-year prison term.