A fentanyl death. A crackdown on opioid dealers. Will it help?

A reporter at a June 7 news conference at the Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters in Arlington, Va., holds up a vial of fentanyl, the powerful drug that has contributed to the deadly opioid crisis. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
A reporter at a June 7 news conference at the Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters in Arlington, Va., holds up a vial of fentanyl, the powerful drug that has contributed to the deadly opioid crisis. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Published Jun. 16, 2018

TAMPA — Loueita Hargens had known for years how her son Bradley Dykes would die. She had seen him cycle through drugs of choice, had lost track of the number of times he'd wound up in the hospital or prison.

A recovering alcoholic herself, she cut him off several years ago. "If you want to talk, you can find me at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting," the mother told her son.

It finally happened in November: Dykes fatally overdosed on the synthetic opioid fentanyl. He was 46.

Hargens was grief stricken but not shocked, and months later, another emotion has joined the mix. She hopes the federal prosecution of her son's alleged drug dealer will prevent similar deaths.

"I hope that the new aggressive targeting and prosecution will change somebody's mind (about selling opioids)," she said.

Federal prosecutors announced on June 11 the indictment of Corey Damond Smith, Jr., 22, on charges that he sold Dykes fentanyl billed as heroin. Officials said Smith is the first person in Hillsborough County to be indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of distribution of fentanyl resulting in death.

His indictment is part of an effort by prosecutors in the district and across the country to stem the flow of powerful opioids.

Smith is one of at least 14 cases since the start of 2017 that have resulted in indictments in the Middle District of Florida on charges of distributing opioids that result in death, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Palermo, including three in the district's Tampa division.

"How do we save lives?" said Palermo, the district opioid coordinator and prosecutor on the Smith case. "Part of it is getting off the street the drugs that are killing the most people."

• • •

Smith's indictment reflects a nationwide crackdown. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the number of people charged nationwide with fentanyl-related crimes jumped from 74 in fiscal year 2016 to 267 in FY 2017.

In Florida, fentanyl contributes to the state's opioid epidemic. In 2016, there were 5,725 opioid-related deaths in the state, according to the Medical Examiners Commission, a 35 percent increase from the year before.

A significant share of those opioid deaths are blamed on fentanyl.

There were 814 fentanyl-related deaths statewide in the first half of 2016, and that rose slightly to 825 in the same time period in 2017.

Such fatalities have held steady in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to the state. There were 53 fentanyl-caused deaths in the Tampa Bay area in the first half of 2016, and that number dipped slightly to 47 in 2017.

The problem with fentanyl is that it is increasingly being added to — or "cut" with — illegal drugs such as heroin, making it more lucrative to sell and deadlier to use. Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, and fentanyl analogs — drugs that mimic its effects — can be even stronger.

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Palermo said he hopes the publicity and severity that accompany these federal charges — Smith, if convicted, could spend the rest of his life in prison — will deter drug dealers from trading in powerful opioids such as fentanyl.

"So at least maybe people think twice before cutting something with fentanyl," he said.

But the fact that synthetic opioids are often mixed with other drugs can sometimes make overdose-related cases difficult to prosecute, he said.

Prosecutors have to prove not only that an alleged drug dealer sold a particular drug, but also that the drug caused the overdose.

"It's a matter of interpretation and opinion of the medical examiner," said Bill Pellan, director of investigations at the Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office. "If one specific drug like fentanyl is overwhelmingly concentrated, then I think you would have more agreeing of opinions that that is the main substance involved in the death."

Richard Greenberg, a Tallahassee attorney and president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he believed prosecutors' efforts would do little to deter drug dealers. He called for treating the opioid epidemic as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. Still, he said, he would rather prosecutors focus on drug dealers rather than drug abusers:

"If you're going to continue to have a drug war that's in the criminal justice arena, certainly only the people that are major suppliers should be prosecuted."

• • •

Dykes spent his entire adult life struggling with drugs, his mother said. He used steroids as a promising football player at Armwood High School, then alcohol, cocaine and, near the end of his life, heroin.

He also had a lengthy criminal record that stretched back to 1989 and included charges of battery, burglary and drug possession.

Hargens, 65, prefers to remember her son as he was during his brief periods of sobriety. Once, they went to a spaghetti dinner at a recovery-group meeting in Tampa and she saw how people told him how good he looked. He introduced her to a man he'd asked to be his recovery sponsor.

After his death, she had him cremated. She put her son's ashes in a biodegradable urn and buried it in the flowerbed outside the recovery group's building.

Hargens said she has sympathy for Smith and his family. She knows her son had sold drugs, too. The circumstances could have easily been flipped.

As she watches prosecutors' efforts to slow the spread of opioids, she wants to share in the effort. She plans to attend Smith's trial, and hopes to meet his mother, to take her out for lunch.

Maybe, she said, they can share their experiences with recovering drug users. Maybe they can somehow dam the flow of drugs that upended their sons' lives.

"Corey's still going to go to court," she said. "Bradley's still going to be dead. I just want people to reconsider what path they're going to go down."

Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.