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Articles Posted in Drug Offenses

I think we can all agree that 2020 was a bad year all around. Drug abuse and overdose was no exception.  In 2020, the number of drug overdose deaths increased 30% to an estimated 93,000 people, the largest number of annual overdose deaths ever recorded in this county. For comparison, when I first started writing on this blog about the opioid crisis five years ago (2016), there were an estimated 63,000 drug overdose deaths. Last year there were an estimated 72,000 deaths. This is a tragedy that affects all ages but more so the young – over 60% of these overdose deaths occurred in the under 45 year old age groups.

Opioids, particularly Fentanyl, represent close to 75% of the fatal drug overdoses, but psychostimulants such as methamphetamines and prescription pain drugs have also contributed to the increased fatalities. Most of the deaths are believed to be caused by contaminated drugs.

Some observers point to the Covid-19 pandemic to explain this alarming increase. Job loses, social isolation, and occasionally the trauma of friends or family contracting COVID-19 may have led to more drug abuse and increased overdose fatalities. Indeed, the statistics indicate that overdose deaths really started taking off in March 2020, strongly suggesting that the pandemic helped drive the increase. The crisis was further compounded by the pandemic because people who were in recovery, getting treatment, or wanted treatment were often unable to get those services due to the lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions. Losing the face-to-face interaction that is often crucial to recovery worsened the struggle for many.

The opioid addiction and overdose crisis is old news, but is this country on the cusp of a new prescription drug epidemic? Some experts fear that a class of drugs, benzodiazepines, is the next drug epidemic. Benzodiazepines, commonly referred to as “Benzos”, are effective at treating acute anxiety and panic disorders when therapy and other drugs don’t help. But benzos are powerful drugs and they can be highly addictive. Despite their dangers, benzos are so effective at treating anxiety that prescription rates for these drugs have skyrocketed. The huge increase in the number of prescriptions written for benzos in the past few years suggest that, like opioids, these prescriptions are too freely dispensed.

Many healthcare professionals are concerned and believe more attention needs to be paid to this potential looming crisis. The benzodiazepine prescription trajectory mimics the large increase in opioid prescriptions that ended in a crisis this country still suffers from today. And like opioids, a person can suffer a fatal overdose on benzos.

As with opioids, the legal prescription market has made its way into the recreational drug market. The use of benzodiazepines as a recreational drug among teens and young adults is increasing. Among this age group benzo addiction has taken over the rates of addiction to opioids. While young people may think it is okay to take the drug because it is a prescription drug – even if the prescription is not for them – the truth is, it is dangerous, addictive, and illegal.  Many abusers are also using benzodiazepines in combination with opioids, a dangerous concoction.

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO HE STOOD BEFORE THE JUDGE AS A CONVICTED DRUG DEALER, NOW HE STANDS BEFORE THE SAME JUDGE TO BE SWORN IN AS AN ATTORNEY.

Being a criminal defense attorney in Orange County can be tough and demanding work. I know that every one of my clients is a unique individual and I can only be their advocate when I understand how they landed on the other side of my desk. A proper defense requires that I learn about my client’s personal story, which often includes getting to know my clients’ families too.  While I celebrate the victories with my clients, sometimes the outcome is less than what we hoped for. Even though this is part of the business, I am still disappointed and feel the pain along with the client whom I have gotten to know as an individual, someone who is more than an accused criminal in front of the judge’s bench. That is why the following story is so instructive and affirming of my attitude as a criminal defense attorney.

Sixteen years ago 27-year-old Ed Martell stood before Judge Bruce Morrow in his Michigan courtroom and pleaded guilty to selling and manufacturing crack cocaine. The defendant faced a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Having grown up in challenging circumstances — the son of a single mother living in low-income housing and relying on government assistance – Mr. Martell entered the world of drug dealing at a young age. By 13 years old, he received his first felony conviction, followed by another two years later. He dropped out of high school to continue his drug trafficking career. Mr. Martell estimated that he had stood before at least 20 judges before his encounter with Judge Morrow.

 
The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything and that includes criminal activity. Reports are that crime has decreased significantly in Southern California since the stay at home orders went into effect. Not only has the virus considerably diminished the opportunities for crimes such as robbery, burglary, and other crimes where one would expect to see an impact, but it has also had a notable impact on the drug trade and the attendant crime of money laundering. Many of the traditional means used by drug dealers who “wash” the proceeds of their trade have been shut down as a byproduct of the virus.  These disruptions in the money laundering trade have had a supply chain effect, leaving illegal drugs in shorter supply and making them much more expensive in Southern California and elsewhere across the nation.

The white collar crime of Money laundering of drug proceeds is illegal under California law (California Health and Safety Code section 11370.9) and under Federal law (18 United States Code 1956). How does the money laundering of drug proceeds typically work? There are almost as many money laundering schemes as there are dirty dollars but usually the strategy involves moving money through a legitimate business or through a series of transactions that almost work like a foreign currency exchange that coverts one foreign currency to U.S. dollars via complicated intermediary steps.

Money laundering, which  is usually accomplished by running dirty money through a legitimate businesses, say a restaurant or an apparel wholesaler—the latter being a favored way of laundering money in Southern California— has become all but impossible with these businesses forced to close during the pandemic. In years past, when currency transaction controls were not as strict, drug proceeds were often simply shipped as cash back to, say Mexico, and distributed as deposits to bank accounts. Drug dealers, particularly the Mexican cartels favored this method until the Mexican government instituted financial regulations that made this risky. The cartels then picked up the money laundering methods developed by Colombian traffickers by utilizing legitimate businesses to make their dollar proceeds untraceable to the drug traffickers. Now that this money laundering pipeline has been shut off, the dirty money is piling up and the drug traffickers have turned to the old method of packing up drug proceed cash in boxes and sending it across the border. Resorting to the old methods of money laundering have brought back the good old days for law enforcement when drug proceed cash was much easier to intercept and seize. Law enforcement have hauled in huge drug money seizures since the Covid 19 business shutdowns were ordered.

Johnson & Johnson, as American as apple pie and Coca Cola. The American corporation that was founded in 1886 has provided generations of American homes with consumer staples such as baby care products, toiletries, and wound care products….and opioids. Most people associate Purdue Pharma with the opioid crisis that has ravaged parts of this country for years, but Johnson & Johnson also played a huge role in the crisis.

In the mid-1990’s, while the opioid crisis was already taking wing, Johnson & Johnson embarked upon a new business: the cultivation of poppies in Tasmania. Johnson & Johnson scientists genetically modified poppy plants, engineering “super poppies” that produced abundant opiates. Rewarding farmers in Tasmania, where the super poppies were grown, with handsome prices and incentives, such as luxury cars, Johnson & Johnson cultivated a new business through its subsidiaries. The poppies became a boom crop for the tiny island state of Tasmania. And the scientist who discovered the way to genetically modify the poppies was celebrated by Johnson & Johnson. The company gave that scientist the highest science award offered by Johnson & Johnson in the year 2000, “for the Invention of the Thebaine Alkaloid ‘Norman’ Poppy.”

The poppies—grown on thousands of Tasmanian acers– were exported to the U.S. under Drug Enforcement Administration approval. The poppies were then refined by the subsidiaries into oxycodone and hydrocodone powders that were shipped to U.S. pill makers…. such as Purdue Pharma, which become one of the first major customers for the Johnson & Johnson product.

The top health story of 2018 according to WebMD was the opioid addiction crisis. This crisis is not only a health crisis but a legal crisis too. Opioid addiction creates a huge black market for purveyors of all variety of opioids, including heroin. The addiction also causes many addicts to commit crimes so that they are able to fund their habit. But most tragic of all is the number of people who are dying from opioid overdoses.  In 2017, the most recent year for which the statistics are available, 47,600 people died in the U.S. from an opioid overdose. Tragically, over half of those deaths were among people 25-44 years of age. Opioid deaths surpass the number of people who died in a fatal car accident in 2017 by almost 10,000. To put this in perspective, every 11 minutes, someone dies of an opioid overdose.

Why is our health and legal system doing such a poor job of addressing this crisis? Perhaps we are putting too much blame on the addict. To the credit of justice reform efforts across the country, including some in Orange County, laws are being written that seek to address the addiction rather than criminalize it. But perhaps we need to turn our thinking 180 degrees. No one plans on getting hooked on opioids. Sometimes it is chronic physical pain that brings a person to the dark path of addiction, often leading to addiction to street drugs such as heroin when the prescriptions are no longer available.  This is often the story we hear.

Yet, there is another pain that leads people to addiction—emotional/psychological pain. In our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” nation, we often consider those who become addicted because they are in emotional pain to be weak and consider the addiction to be their own fault. How helpful is that? Not very. The truth is many people turn to these drugs in response to very painful life experiences, whether it be the lingering effects of PTSD, childhood trauma, or any number of experiences that affect the person so profoundly that they cannot shake the pain of it. Not everyone will turn to drugs to ease painful experiences, but some people are simply more susceptible, whether that is due to personality factors, lack of resources, or even a lack of imagination.

Fentanylis the deadliest opioid of all the opioids being abused in this country. It is said to be 50 times more powerful than pure heroin, making it very easy to overdose on the drug-hence the highest rate of fatal overdoses in this country can be attributed to Fentanyl. In 2017, an estimated 19,000 people died from Fentanyl overdoses.

Contributing to this epidemic is Fentanyl’s ease of manufacture and transport. It is a synthetic drug, requiring only chemicals, cheap equipment, and a little bit of knowledge to make. Most of the illicit Fentanyl on American streets are made in Chinese laboratories. Sometimes referred to as a “Drug Bazaar,” chemical laboratories operate all over China with little oversight or regulation. Many of the labs are producing fentanyl and fentanyl analogues by the tons. China denies this but there is plenty of evidence supporting the charge.

Moreover, the sale of fentanyl is an extremely lucrative business. By way of example: $1,000 worth of bulk heroin divided up into retail portions would net the dealer a profit of $4,000. The same purchase of bulk fentanyl from China would net a profit of $7.8 million! These figures, as incredible as they may seem, come from the Drug Enforcement Administration (per Bloomberg News).

OxyContin, first introduced by Purdue Pharma in 1996, was aggressively marketed to physicians, nurses and pharmacists as a superior, longer-lasting, and safer treatment for cancer-related chronic pain as well as other pain, and as a treatment for “non- malignant pain” (long-lasting pain with no identified precursor).  The marketing campaign was intense even though randomized double-blind studies found that OxyContin was no more effective than opioids already in use for the treatment of pain.  Purdue’s intense promotion of the drug proved to be very lucrative for the company. From the time of its introduction to 2000, a mere four years, sales of OxyContin grew from $48 million to over $1 billion.

Purdue Pharma claimed that the risk of addictionto the drug was minimal, maintaining that less than one percent of those that used the drug got addicted. The company even cited studies to confirm this “fact.” We know now that OxyContin is highly addictive; Purdue knew it then. OxyContin, zealously promoted and widely available, was a “gateway” drug to theopioid crisesthat continues to grip the country. Yet, Purdue Pharma claimed for years that it was unaware of OxyContin’s addictive properties. That was an outright lie.

A United States Justice Department investigation exposed conclusive evidence that Purdue was well aware of OxyContin’s addiction risks as early as 1997. Yet, when Purdue’s chief medical officer was called to testify before the House Appropriations subcommittee in 2001 concerning the then evident risks of OxyContin addiction abuse, he claimed that Purdue was unaware of the problem for the first four years it was on the market.

The opioid epidemic is costing the state and federal government billions of dollars. Numerous lawsuits have been filed by cities and counties in courts across the nation. Recently the federal government indicated it is exploring a lawsuit against the companies that manufacture and distribute opioids seeking reimbursement of the costs the government has expended fighting the epidemic.

Tens of thousands of people die each year in this country from opioid overdoes and exponentially more individuals receive treatment, often—if not usually—at the taxpayer’s expense. The lawsuits accuse the pharmaceutical companies with deceptively marketing the drugs as safe, non-addictive painkillers. When these drugs were first introduced, many doctors and patients believed the pharmaceutical companies’ representations. It wasn’t long before it became obvious that these drugs were highly addictive and dangerous. As more patients became addicted, the demand for these drugs increased. Yet, the opioid manufacturers and distributors ignored the proliferation of suspicious orders for the drugs.

Over 400 cities and counties across the country are plaintiffs in a multidistrict federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Ohio. The defendants are pharmaceutical companies that manufactured and, as the plaintiffs allege, “aggressively marketed” opioid drugs even though the companies were aware that the drugs were addictive and dangerous. The lawsuit names not only the pharmaceutical companies as defendants but also pharmacy chains, alleging that the pharmacies sold these drugs to individuals even though they were aware that many of the individuals were returning again and again to fill these prescriptions, which should have alerted the pharmacies that the individuals were addicted or otherwise using the medications for other than legitimate medical reasons.

LEGAL MARIJUANA COMES WITH MANY RULES AND NEW TAXES

The pot shops will soon open and even though recreational marijuana is legal now, there are still plenty of reasons a black market in marijuana sales will not be going away with the opening of your local cannabis shop. To begin with, the laws regulating the legal cannabis shops are onerous. In fact, it might be a challenge to even understand all the regulations in the 276-page Bureau of Cannabis Control regulations book. And that’s not all: cannabis shops also have to abide by regulations promulgated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Public Health.

The cannabis products that do end up for sale must be tested and tracked under strict rules including limits on the amount of THC allowed in edibles. Furthermore, the fees and licensing requirements are confusing and often costly.