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With more opioid-related drug deaths than homicides in Detroit last year, local and federal law enforcement agencies have formed a group to battle the epidemic, with plans to hold drug dealers responsible if they sell drugs to someone who dies from an overdose.

Officials from the Detroit Police Department, Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Drug Enforcement Agency, Homeland Security and FBI on Monday announced the formation of the Heroin/Opioid Response Group.

The task force, which deployed Jan. 18, will collaborate to stem the rash of opioid-related overdoses, which reached 388 in Detroit last year — more than the 267 homicides in the city in 2017.

Statewide there were more than 1,700 opioid-related deaths last year, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said. That’s up from 455 total drug overdoses in Michigan in 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As I began to immerse myself into the impact of the crisis, I was shocked,” Craig said during a press conference at police headquarters. “We always placed a key focus on violence, but here’s what’s significant: Last year we had the lowest number of homicides in 50 years, but when we look at opioid-related deaths in Detroit ... that’s what I call a crisis.”

Craig said fentanyl and carfentanyl — which he said is 100 time stronger than fentanyl — are the biggest contributors to overdoses. Drug dealers lace heroin, cocaine and marijuana with the substances to make them stronger, he said.

“Three granules of carfentanyl can cause an overdose that leads to death,” Craig said.

The local increase in opioid overdoses mirrors the national trend. In 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 60,000 drug overdoses nationwide, with 20,000 of those attributed to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.

The Detroit Drug Enforcement Agency office will dedicate one supervisor and four investigators to the new team. An additional agent from Homeland Security will also be imbedded in the task force.

Timothy Plancon, Special Agent in Charge of Detroit’s DEA office, said the demographics of heroin users have changed over the years, with more people getting hooked after receiving prescriptions from doctors.

“About four of five heroin users start with pills,” Plancon said. “This task force will also go after rogue doctors who are prescribing this stuff. The vast majority of doctors are healers, but there are some rogue doctors who are basically drug dealers.

“We’re working on educating the medical community on this issue,” Plancon said.

As part of the new initiative, Detroit interim U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said he plans to charge drug dealers if they sell dope to someone who dies from an overdose.

“It’s a homicide ... when someone delivers a controlled substance and that results in a death,” Schneider said. “In the past if someone died from an overdose, it was looked at as just an overdose. Now, we’re going to look into where these drugs are coming from ... and charge the dealers with drug delivery causing death.”

Craig said joint enforcement efforts this month have led to the seizure of more than 1000 grams of heroin. Since the task force deployed Jan. 18, police confiscated 42 grams of fentanyl, most of which Craig said is smuggled from Mexico.

James Deir, special agent in charge of the Detroit office of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office, added: “We have a message for everyone who is peddling this poison on the streets of Detroit: We’re coming. I guarantee you with the full faith and backing of the federal government ... we’re coming after every one of you.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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