The bane of drug abuse and addiction is not new to Timothy Plancon.

In more than two decades of law enforcement work, he’s seen the rise and fall of crack and cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Now, the Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Detroit Field Division is watching the evolution of heroin and opioid addiction torment communities across his multi-state coverage area, which includes Louisville.

“It’s a huge problem,” he said.

Addressing that problem is a multi-layered effort that’s much easier in theory than in practice, Plancon said during an interview this week at the downtown University of Louisville hospital.

He was in town for a summit to discuss the rise and response of heroin abuse and opioid addiction. He joined a few hundred others from various levels of law enforcement and medicine to formulate new approaches to tamp down the prevalence of the drug that can kill those who use it and deeply affect countless others.

Frequently, Plancon said, heroin dealers are mixing their drug with a potent anesthesia drug called fentanyl. It’s an often deadly combination, he said.

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Earlier this year, a batch of fentanyl-laced heroin led to a surge in overdoses in cities along the Ohio River. Emergency rooms in Louisville were inundated with seasoned addicts on the brink of death.

Looking for Big Fish

Heroin often makes its way to the United States from Mexico, Plancon said. Fentanyl usually comes from China. Plancon said his colleagues are aggressive in efforts to keep the drugs out of the states, but it’s tough.

“The sky is the limit on how it’s smuggled and, frankly, people have rights and you can’t exhaustively search every plane, train or automobile without reason,” he said.

To aid the effort of cutting off the supply of heroin, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is working alongside federal prosecutors and local police agencies, like the Louisville Metro Police Department, to “exploit overdose scenes,” said John E. Kuhn, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the western district of Kentucky.

“The idea is to not put addicts in jail,” Kuhne said, but rather scour the scene to wrangle any information that could help authorities track down suppliers. That includes getting access to witnesses or cell phone data that could help track down “high level traffickers,” he said.

“If we can prove they sold any controlled substance that’s caused an overdose, whether it’s fatal or non-fatal, they’re looking at a minimum of 20 years in prison,” Kuhne said.

Local police also try to weed out large scale dealers from “peddlers,” said LMPD Sgt. Thomas Schardein.

These small-time sellers are common among the dealer population in Louisville, Schardein said. These dealers are often selling not to make money but to get high themselves.

“We recognize this and we try to make sure they’re handled in more of a treatment fashion,” he said.

One of the most important tools officers can get at the overdose scene, and what’s often missing prior to an overdose is information, Schardein said.

Families, he said, are often very open to talk after an overdose occurs. Beforehand, however, it’s a different story. They may fear the police will crack down on the user. But Schardein said that’s not always the case. They want the dealers.

Gauging Success

If efforts are working, though, is tough to tell.

“I’d like to tell you we’re winning,” Schardein said. “But I don’t know.”

In the meantime, local police have armed themselves with overdose fighting drugs like narcan and are equipped to address such situations as they arise, said LMPD assistant chief Robert Schroeder. He said local police officers have “saved” more than 400 people since they began carrying narcan about a year ago.

“No matter how the folks got in the situation they’re in, it’s really our job, our duty, our goal to help them recover the best we can,” he said.

He expects police to continue to deploying narcan for as long as the city struggles with opioid addiction. And it’s unclear just how long that will be.

Plancon, with the DEA, said partnerships with local police and federal agencies are making an impact. But the demand for the drug remains.

And he said when the demand is as strong as it is, people will find a way to get it.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.