SALT LAKE CITY — The statistics from the Drug Enforcement Agency are both staggering and frightening.
According to the 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment report released earlier this month, death by drug poisoning is the "leading cause of injury death in the United States," outnumbering deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide, and has been that way since 2011. The number of drug deaths in the U.S. is at an all-time high, and the opioid threat has "reached epidemic levels," the report's executive summary states.
In Utah, the problem is no different.
"Utahns have a voracious appetite for prescription pills. That is just a fact," Brian Besser, Drug Enforcement Administration assistant special agent in charge, said Thursday. "Drugs that come in a bottle are abused in Utah."
In addition to opioids, methamphetamine, heroin and even a resurgence in cocaine are problems in the Beehive State, he said.
"The methamphetamine epidemic in this state right now is only being eclipsed by the media that is given to the opioid epidemic," Besser said.
Utah is No. 1 in the nation in overdose deaths due to meth, he said.
On top of that, there is now also the problem of drug dealers lacing all of these drugs with fentanyl, he said. And in the schools, marijuana is "rampant."
The problem, Besser said, is "America has an insatiable appetite for drugs," and in Utah where there is wide-open land and rural roads, it's easy for drug dealers to move around.
But law enforcers in Utah are continuing to do their part to curb the amount of drugs being distributed in the state. On Thursday, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber held a press conference with several local, state and federal law enforcement partners by his side, highlighting several recent successes in taking down drug trafficking organizations.
In one case, seven people were charged in a 37-count indictment this week, accused of distributing drugs from St. George to Boise, Idaho, and "everything in-between," Huber said. He called them a "very sophisticated and profitable" group that, unlike other organizations that were busted, were all from Utah.
Investigators seized 47 pounds of meth, 26 pounds of heroin, nearly $500,000 in cash and eight guns from the group. But Huber called it a "flash in the pan" compared to the total amount of drugs the group had been shipping. Law enforcers used wiretaps and other investigative tools to bring about charges.
In another case, a Mexican national living in Taylorsville was charged by a federal grand jury on Wednesday with distributing meth and heroin, according to court documents, 33 pounds of meth were seized in that case.
In a third case, 26 people connected to the same Honduran drug trafficking cells were charged with drug trafficking in six indictments. The charges followed a year-and-a-half long investigation, Huber said. Even though the people indicted are from Honduras, they were transporting drugs from Mexico into Utah, he said.
Fourteen of the 26 indicted have been arrested. Of those 14, Huber said 13 were previously deported, including one person who has been deported seven times.
Calling their crimes "outrageous criminal conduct" and stressing that many of those indicted had "no business being here," Huber said it was drug traffickers like these who exploit the weaknesses of Utahns and Americans.
"They take our cash, they exploit our addictions, and they fuel our crime," he said. "In Utah and in much of our nation, drug trafficking fuels our violent crime problems."
The Honduran group was responsible for trafficking mainly heroin and cocaine in Utah, according to investigators.