If recent drug seizures are any indication, a pipeline of hard drugs stretches from as far away as Mexico, to California and Oregon and on to Alaska and its most rural communities.
In two related cases indicted in federal court last month, more than a dozen people are accused of trafficking a total of about a 100 pounds of fentanyl and 25 pounds of meth within Alaska. Some members of the group are also indicted in the execution-style murders of two women last summer.
Working with their federal counterparts, Alaska State Troopers are seeing more meth and fentanyl than ever. Capt. Cornelius Sims is commander of the troopers’ drug enforcement unit, and he says drug traffickers appear to be targeting Alaska.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Cornelius Sims: The reason, I would say and we believe, is because of the profit margin they can make bringing drugs into Alaska and selling them. Trafficking drugs into Alaska and selling them inside of Alaska has a higher profit margin than pretty much any other state.
Wesley Early: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that profit margin?
CS: Well, when drug traffickers buy large quantities from, I would say, countries below our southern border, they’re buying for a wholesale rate of whatever they may buy them for, a reduced rate than what we see. Then it’s brought up to Alaska and then sold in Alaska. It’s a substantial increase. I’ve heard of wholesale prices for, say, fentanyl down in source states for 27, 25 cents a pill. You can bring it up to Alaska and sell that same pill for anywhere from $15 to $80.
WE: Does that just depend on where in Alaska it is?
CS: It does, yes.
WE: So are you seeing traffickers trying to get more drugs specifically to rural Alaska? And if so, why?
CS: It seems like there’s been an increase into rural Alaska. I can’t say traffickers are necessarily targeting, going straight for rural Alaska, versus just getting it here to Anchorage, Fairbanks, our major hubs, and then … pushing it to rural Alaska. You’re still gonna have to have some kind of connection to get it to rural Alaska, versus just somebody coming up from Nowhere, Alaska and popping up there. They’re going to have to have a connection once they get it to Anchorage, then traffic it out to rural Alaska.
WE: So it seems like even one drug shipment getting through to a small, rural community would have disastrous consequences. And the Department of Public Safety’s annual drug report last year notes a pretty staggering increase in the amount of drugs seized, including methamphetamine, cocaine, fentanyl. What does that look like on the ground in communities? What are troopers seeing?
CS: Oh, they’re definitely seeing an increase of all those drugs inside our rural communities. It doesn’t take much. I mean, a handful of fentanyl pills in a location in rural Alaska is going to have a devastating effect, compared to a handful here in Anchorage or any other major city in the United States. It’s just a smaller population. Doesn’t take much to have a devastating effect in those communities.
WE: Can you talk broadly, or if there are specific initiatives, about how the state is combating what seems to be this really rapid rise in illegal drugs across rural Alaska?
CS: I would say that the effort is to combat what’s coming into the hubs. I equate it to, if I have a sinking ship, if I have a big hole — a big hole being a hub city where it’s coming into, Anchorage, Fairbanks area — I’m going to focus on that big hole and then focus on those smaller communities and try to stop it from getting out to those smaller communities. So you name a way to get something into Alaska, a majority of that is coming in Anchorage and then being dispersed from there. And so our focus is we’re making a big focus on what’s coming in Anchorage. And then our secondary focus is what leaves Anchorage, going out to our hub communities, be it through parcel, personal carry. We do have an initiative to even focus on our highways. Now we have a highway interdiction team that’s focused on what’s getting trafficked on the highways between Anchorage and our communities that are on the road system.
WE: What would you say to Alaskans right now who are reading about this really rapid rise in drug cases and drug seizures and overdoses? How big of a deal is this?
CS: My personal view, (it’s) significant. It is significant. I just came from a state conference talking about drugs, and everywhere, we’re realizing it’s a big deal in all states, but especially in Alaska. Couple of things I would say is, give us the tip. So when you hear about drugs, you hear about drug traffickers, you hear about drugs moving through the state, send us a tip. AK Tips, they can send us a tip. Know that, at times, it will seem like, “I sent this tip. Nothing’s being done.” Many times, the work we’re doing is on the backside. We’re working these tips the way we have to work them, the way the drug investigations work. It may seem like nothing’s being done, but we are using those tips and we are putting effort into working those. So continue to send tips. I will say to Alaskans, don’t take anything that wasn’t prescribed to you by a doctor. Be aware.