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Federal task force targets sale of illegal painkillers

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

At the age of 53, barely literate and morbidly obese, Crystal Staggs hardly cut the figure of a drug dealer as she drove her white 13-year-old BMW around Albuquerque.

But in June 2012, Staggs, who has a host of medical problems, was cashing in on her access to prescription Oxycodone, selling 245 of the 30-milligram pills for $4,000 to a man she had recently met through a friend.

The man was actually an undercover agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, part of an anti-diversion task force set up to keep prescription opioids from reaching the black market in Albuquerque.

On her third sale to the undercover agent, Staggs was arrested.

STAGGS: Caught by undercover DEA agent

STAGGS: Caught by undercover DEA agent

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said resources, like undercover federal agents, are being directed at illegal prescription pill sales as part of a federal/state initiative because, “We have a public health crisis in New Mexico.”

New Mexico, Martinez said in a recent interview, is No. 2 in the country for overdoses from heroin and opioid painkillers like Oxycodone.

Nearly one in 11 high school students in the state reports having abused prescription painkillers, and New Mexico ranks third-highest in the nation for teen nonmedical use of pain relievers, at 6.8 percent, compared with 5 percent nationwide, according to the state Human Services Department.

“As part of the initiative, we may take cases that we used to turn down,” Martinez said. “When we examine cases, we’re looking for distributors. Who is a distributor has morphed in recent years; it’s a new challenge.”

Staggs, who may have been too low a level drug distributor to warrant federal attention in the past, pleaded guilty this month to federal drug charges and ultimately agreed to a sentence of five years in federal prison.

As a “career offender,” she could have faced a sentence of between 12 and 15½ years because of her previous state convictions for drug trafficking.

Unlike trafficking in heroin, there are no mandatory minimum sentences for illegally distributing Oxycodone or other prescription medications. So, prison sentences tend to run the gamut from probation to more than 10 years.

Factors like the number of pills and a person’s criminal history are taken into account in federal sentencing guidelines.

History of pain

In Staggs’ case, court documents show she has criminal drug convictions dating back to the 1990s. Most recently, she pleaded guilty in state District Court for Bernalillo County to trafficking in a controlled substance in 2007 in two separate cases. She received probation in both cases and had a series of probation violations that never led to time in state prison.

A still from a public service ad campaign sponsored by the state Human Services Department directed at teen drug abuse. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Human Services Department)

A still from a public service ad campaign sponsored by the state Human Services Department directed at teen drug abuse. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Human Services Department)

While her state cases were pending, according to court records, Staggs qualified for Social Security disability payments for back problems that led to spinal fusion surgery.

After her latest arrest by DEA agents, she had a hip and both knees replaced while on pretrial release to her mother’s home.

Her attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender John F. Robbenharr, wrote in sentencing documents that Staggs’ “host of physical problems provides a hint into why Ms. Staggs became addicted to pain killers and other controlled substances and hence how in 2012 Ms. Staggs could have access to large quantities of narcotic painkillers to sell.”

Her physical ailments aside, Robbenharr said in court documents, Staggs has also been found to be mildly mentally retarded, with a history of emotional and psychological problems.

Santa Fe ring

Tracking the source of prescription painkillers on the streets isn’t always easy.

“We see a little bit of everything,” said Sean Waite, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA Albuquerque District Office. “Everything from the family medicine cabinet to overprescribing or illegal prescribing by physicians, nurse practitioners. Prescription fraud rings. Pharmacy robberies. Occasionally, we seize Oxycodone produced in Mexico, sometimes heroin made to look like oxy.”

The DEA diversion task force combines law enforcement agents with civilian regulators to track the sources of painkillers hitting the street.

It also gives them access to the federal law enforcement tool box – wiretaps, remote camera surveillance, GPS trackers and the like. In a pending case against a Santa Fe prescription fraud ring, investigators relied heavily on wiretaps, and remote video cameras mounted on telephone and light poles to track the alleged conspirators.

In 2013, the DEA diversion task force worked with local law enforcement agencies in Santa Fe on the investigation that resulted in the seizure of 7,300 milligrams of Oxycodone and the arrests of five alleged members of the ring.

According to court documents, federal agents believed the ring was obtaining fraudulent prescriptions from a medical professional made out in the names of people who were not patients. The ring then filled the prescriptions at local pharmacies and sold the pills illegally.

A single 30-milligram pill of Oxycodone can cost as much as $30. The more pills a person buys, the lower the price.

Earlier this month, one of the defendants in the case, Phillip Anaya, 38, was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for trafficking in Oxycodone.

Anaya admitted his role in the ring was to distribute painkillers obtained by the group to other addicts in Santa Fe.

Anaya’s attorney in court documents attributed Anaya’s criminal behavior to his own addiction to painkillers.

Two other members of the ring – Daniel Trujillo, 32, and Sarah Romero, 35 – have been sentenced to 18 months each following their guilty pleas.

Ashraf Nassar, 31, and Krystal Holmes, 28, have pleaded not guilty and their cases are pending trial. The case has been ruled complex because of the extensive use of wiretaps.

Educating teens

One of the big concerns federal and local officials have is a perception among teens that prescription painkillers are safer than heroin.

MARTINEZ: “We have a public health crisis” in NM (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

MARTINEZ: “We have a public health crisis” in NM (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

According to several surveys of New Mexico teens, only marijuana use ranks higher than that of prescription painkillers when it comes to drug use. “A real challenge is that young people don’t believe pills are dangerous like heroin,” Martinez said. “But nationwide we’re seeing more overdoses from prescription pills than heroin.”

He and other federal officials also say they are not the only player. The state Board of Pharmacy, the state Medical Board and Medical Society, the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, the state Department of Health, the state Human Services Department and local law enforcement are involved.

In 2012, the New Mexico Legislature passed a bill that mandated continuing medical education for pain and addiction for all clinicians.

Last week, the state Department of Human Services issued three public service advertisements called “A Dose of Reality” in a campaign to educate youth and their parents about the serious risks of addiction and overdose from prescription painkiller abuse.

The Medical Society has produced DVDs for doctors and other drug prescribers about how to detect people who “shop” for doctors in order to obtain prescription painkillers.

State Behavioral Health Services Division Director Wayne Lindstrom said in a release on the ad campaign that “12- to 17-year-olds abuse prescription drugs more than they abuse heroin, crack and cocaine, ecstasy and methamphetamine combined. Prescription drugs most commonly abused by teens are prescription painkillers.”

Martinez said the cases directed at the illegal distribution of painkillers are part of the Heroin Prevention and Education Initiative (HOPE Initiative), which is directed at reducing opioid-related overdose deaths in New Mexico. The initiative includes efforts directed at prevention and education.

“Education is a big part of this,” Martinez said. “Not just young people, but professionals. People have to know how dangerous it is to abuse prescription drugs.”

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