A Federal Investigator on the Opioid epidemic

Greg Potts is an undercover Federal Investigator who’s worked in the Narcotics Division since the late nineties. Since his time on the force, he’s witnessed the escalation of the opioid epidemic first-hand. We sat down with him as part of our documentary to talk about his experiences and provide community insight.

Keith Schnabel: When did you first realize that you wanted to enter law enforcement?

Greg Potts: Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to get into it right then and there. People ask me why and I don’t really have a great answer to that. It was just something that intrigued me.

What was the history of opioids in mid-Michigan prior to this epidemic?

Well, I’ve been working narcotics here since 1998 and we had very, very few contact with heroin in the 90s. By a few I mean one or two – total, until 2006. In 2006 it started coming in once the pharmaceuticals changed the make-up of the Oxycontin. That’s when it really started, and it’s really exploded, now.

How did pharmaceuticals like Oxycontin pave the way for heroin?

The people that use it and abuse it get a false sense of security that it’s pharma-grade. Grandma can take it, grandpa can take it, mom and dad can take and they feel like its okay for them to use it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Oxycontin – when they changed the chemical make-up it was harder for people to abuse it. They added a gel to it so it makes it harder to break it down and abuse it. Once that happened, it seemed like there were more people trying to push heroin. I mean, heroin is cheaper. Oxycontin – you were paying upwards of a dollar a gram for it so if you had an 80 mg-pill it was like 80 bucks a pill. You start adding that up to a prescription of 120 pills it’s like almost ten grand. They were making good money off of it.  We worked a case in 2006 where they were bringing in a lot of Oxycontin and then they started bringing in the heroin, it was a federal case we worked. Seemed like 2006 is when it started changing…

How does heroin get to the area now?

It comes from source cities. Our source cities, here are Detroit, Saginaw and Flint. Those are the primaries. There is something different about heroin. You know, with crack or cocaine we would get dealers coming in from different source cities and they would just sell all the crack and then leave. Well, now we’re getting a lot of the users that can’t afford to have it [the heroin]. It’s too much money to steal so what they do is they sell it to cover the cost of their own addiction. So we’re getting a lot of users selling it as opposed to the dealers. There are a lot more users that are making trips down to these cities to pick it up and bring it back where before it was more a straight-out dealer…

Does that mobility to the dealing make it more difficult to root out of the community?

It does because there are so many more of them here. We get a guy come out of town who was a little easier to identify because they would stay at a nice apartment or hotel room but now we have these sellers that are just living in the community and it makes it a little more difficult to identify them.

What makes heroin so destructive, as a drug, to the user?

The most destructive part is after like 4 hours they start getting sick. They call it getting “dope sick”. Dope sick means basically having a very violent case of the flu. They need heroin to make that go away. They have to have it and that’s the addiction. You can’t really go without it without getting sick. It’s a never-ending process for them. And they build a tolerance for it. The more their tolerance gets up there, the more they use. Some people inject a tenth of a gram or less if their new at it and I’ve known addicts that inject more than a gram of heroin at a time. They’re doing that like six times a day at 140-150 bucks a gram.

Does that tolerance lead to more overdoses?

Well, not really. If you have a high tolerance, you can take more and you won’t overdose. The problem with the overdoses is the fentanyl that they’re putting in it. We’re out buying heroin pretty much every day and a lot of the stuff we get back to the crime labs – the majority of it has fentanyl in it and some of it’s all fentanyl. About forty-five micrograms of fentanyl – and I’m talking micrograms – is about the normal use that you would use if you were in severe pain and you were in the hospital and they needed to treat you.  And that’s roughly a grain of salt.  If you have two grains of salt, you’re not going to do very well. When you got people mixing this stuff up on the street and there is no way to measure it and we’re talking micrograms –that’s where it starts to become a problem. We actually had to stop an investigation because the crime lab informed us that the stuff we were purchasing contained a lethal dose of fentanyl.

So, there is a legal amount of fentanyl that you can carry on your person and it’s not under suspicion of selling?

No, no, it’s mixed in with the heroin. We buy this heroin but then when the lab gets their report back to us, we’ll know when there’s fentanyl in it.

Ok.

You know, fentanyl is a Schedule II narcotic. It’s a prescribed drug. You can have it prescribed by a doctor. It’s for severe pain.

Could you describe your first encounter with heroin, was that back in the nineties?

Yeah, just possession. We had some guys up from Detroit – they had heroin on them. So it was just users – just user amounts.

So that was much more typical of an incident back then? Someone from out of town?

Yes. We couldn’t buy heroin around this area. In the nineties? No. We couldn’t buy it – didn’t know anything about it, never dealt with it, other than a few different times. The one thing we’re always dealing with now – from a law enforcement standpoint is we’re doing searches on people, houses. Now you’re dealing with a lot of used needles that are uncapped, all over the house, in their purses, in their pockets, people are seeing them on the street. And a lot of the users, because they’re sharing needles – a lot of them are hepatitis C infected. That becomes an issue for us and the community.  We’ve had a few different times we’ve seen people take uncapped needles and throw them into a waste basket at a gas station. Well who knows when a kid reaches his hand in there or [there’s] just uncapped needles lying around in a parking lot. [Pause] I don’t want to be infected with hepatitis C.

Yeah, that’s an unexpected challenge!

[Laughing] What would I tell my wife?

[Laughs] I was going to ask you what challenges law enforcement faces in addressing the crisis, but I guess that’s a pretty good one to start off – getting infected with hepatitis C!

Yeah. You know, getting a needle pick is a concern of everyone’s. You just have to be more diligent and careful with your searches. You can’t just reach into things; you’ve got to look into what you’re searching before you start digging around. [That’s] something that I think everyone is more aware of now.

How do you combat the drug trade in your work? Is it more-or-less going undercover and rooting people out and trying to find who and where you can get heroin?

Yes, absolutely. We try, and it could just start at a very low level – somebody using it – and eventually we’re trying to get to the source of the supply and try to include who’s all involved with the trade. And every case is different, it just depends on how it’s done and what our availability is too for tracking it. Sometimes it’s just impossible to get past a certain level. But our ultimate goal is to get to a supplier and arrest them and prosecute them. Getting enough evidence to prosecute them – that’s our job.

So you’ve been able to put some suppliers behind bars?

Oh yeah, quite a few of them. Some weeks are better than others. I can remember some weeks where we did like 5 dealers in a week, just depends.

Do you know anyone personally affected by the epidemic?

I deal with addicts every day, that’s my job, but personally? I’ve had some friends call me about family members that were addicted to heroin and asking for advice, so to that extent, yes.

Is there more that should be done to fight back?

Honestly, I think there needs to be more education. There are a lot of people out there with a lot of different ideas about how to treat addicts and, to me, it doesn’t seem like it’s working. The next thing, the next level is to try and educate people to prevent them from even starting.

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Greg Potts is one of the nearly twenty people we talk to in Stigmatic: Our Opioid Crisis; including other law enforcement, medical professionals, educators, journalists, and many other personal accounts.

Keith Schnabel is a co-writer and producer for Stigmatic.

 

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