Pot seizures nearly gone in AZ as fentanyl busts hit 5 million pills | Attendees


Drug smuggling in Arizona has shifted almost entirely from marijuana to harder drugs like fentanyl.

Marijuana seizures in Arizona’s border patrol sectors and ports of entry have all but disappeared since state voters legalized medicinal use in 2010, recreational use in 2020, and other states also legalized the plant.

In the Tucson sector, marijuana seizures are about one-thousandth of what they were a decade ago and one-tenth of what they were a year ago.

In fiscal 2012, border patrol officers from the sector, which covers most of Arizona’s southern border — 262 miles stretching from New Mexico to Yuma County — seized more than a million pounds of marijuana.

In the last financial year they seized around £12,000. In the first nine months of the current financial year they seized less than £900.

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But fentanyl seizures this year are poised for a 60% year-over-year increase in the Tucson sector and a 21% increase at Arizona ports of entry.

Seizures at the Port of Nogales have surpassed 5 million fentanyl pills so far this fiscal year, says Nogales Port Director Michael Humphries.

“Here in Nogales, we’ve seen large amounts of fentanyl, some of the highest along the southwestern border,” Humphries said. “Whatever transnational criminal organizations control this area, they’re heavily involved with fentanyl pills, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.”

Officials at an Arizona port of entry seized 150,000 fentanyl pills, 32 pounds of fentanyl powder, 13 pounds of cocaine and 5 pounds of meth hidden in a vehicle’s rocker panels. This was just a fit they had that Saturday. Another seizure included 320,000 fentanyl pills, 89 pounds of meth, 9 pounds of brown heroin and 2.5 pounds of black tar heroin hidden in the gas tank, side and rocker panels of a vehicle attempting to enter the United States

Courtesy of Port Director Michael W. Humphries

Fentanyl smuggling hotspot

The Sinaloa cartel in Sonora is the main pill maker for fentanyl, which comes in all shapes and colors and even looks like prescription drugs, says Cheri Oz, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Phoenix.

“The Sinaloa cartel uses routes that pass through Arizona,” Oz said. “Because they are the primary producer of the fentanyl pill, we see more fentanyl pills here in Arizona than in other southwestern border states.”

Arizona has the second highest number of fentanyl seizures after California. Fentanyl seizures nationwide this year will be about the same as last year, while they are increasing dramatically year on year in Arizona.

Nogales, Arizona, has a population of about 20,000 people, so most of the 5 million fentanyl pills seized at its ports this year are not intended for Nogales residents, notes Humphries, the port director. Drugs coming through the Nogales ports are destined for Tucson, Phoenix, and the whole country.

“They go all over the US, so what we’re doing here is relevant to Ohio and West Virginia and Connecticut and Kentucky, where we’re seeing high rates of opioid overdose deaths,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were nearly 81,000 opioid overdose deaths in the United States in 2021, a 15% increase from 2020.

Here in Pima County, opioids in general, including fentanyl, contributed to at least 71% of the 498 overdose deaths in calendar year 2021, according to the county health department.

Seizure weights decrease

Although marijuana smuggling has declined nationwide as more states legalize medical and recreational use, Arizona has seen a more drastic change than the statewide numbers, as Texas still has significant marijuana seizures.

Also, the average weight of seizures in Arizona has fallen dramatically, to levels that indicate personal use rather than distribution intent.

Marijuana seized in the Tucson sector this fiscal year came from 360 seizures, meaning the average seizure was less than 2.5 pounds. Just three years earlier, in 2019, the average individual seizure was nearly 56 pounds.

Seizure weights are even lower in some months. For example, in May there were 36 seizures totaling a pound, meaning the average amount of marijuana seized was less than half an ounce.

Although marijuana was legalized in Arizona last year — adults over the age of 21 can legally carry an ounce for personal use — it’s still illegal at the federal level and federal agents have to confiscate it, even many miles from the border.

Cartels are moving away from marijuana

Two likely reasons for the move away from marijuana toward harder drugs are that more states have legalized the once-illicit plant and Americans’ dependence on fentanyl has increased.

“When we arrest someone with marijuana, we just ask, ‘Why?'” said Tucson sector agent and spokesman Jesus Vasavilbaso. “It’s being legalized in many different states, so marijuana just isn’t lucrative for the cartels anymore.

“Of course, cartels are always looking to make money. You won’t be put out of business just because you legalized marijuana. So they just switch to harder drugs.”

Vasavilbaso has been a Border Patrol agent for 13 years, and the drop in marijuana seizures has changed things, he says. For one, marijuana smugglers were easier to spot because the cargo was larger, more visible, and had a strong odor. Now when they find drugs on someone crossing the border, they don’t know until they look in the person’s backpack.

Tucson sector agents have seized more than twice as much methamphetamine as marijuana this fiscal year.

It is a strategy of transnational criminal organizations that control almost all aspects of when and where migrants cross the border, sometimes to convince migrants to bring drugs across the border. Agents also seize drugs from people who pass through border security checks outside the border, often smuggled by US citizens.

Still, the vast majority of drugs today come through ports of entry, which are also often smuggled by US citizens. Arizona Customs officers at ports of entry have seized more than 15,600 pounds of drugs so far this fiscal year, almost five times what Tucson sector agents have seized.

Of fentanyl seized in Arizona’s sectors and ports this fiscal year, more than 80% was in ports of entry.

Hard drug smuggling is likely to increase

If you look at drug smuggling as a business model, the move to harder drugs makes sense, says Victor Manjarrez Jr., a former head of the Tucson sector who is now associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas-El Passo.

“When you’re talking about marijuana, you’re talking about a big logistics chain,” he said. “You have to have real estate to make it grow. You must have workers tending to it, harvesting it. You have to transport it. you have to keep it You have to let it dry. And then the profit margin isn’t that great.”

Harder drugs, on the other hand – “You can cook that stuff in a house.”

And it’s easier to hide — 8 pounds of meth instead of 8 pounds of marijuana takes up less space and has a much higher profit margin.

Manjarrez believes the transition to smuggling harder drugs will become more pronounced over time.

“I think you’re going to see even less marijuana and harder drugs,” he said. “Honestly, I think you’re going to see drugs that we don’t even know about, designer drugs.”

With a little over two months remaining in this fiscal year, fentanyl seizures have already exceeded last year’s total, which has been the case every year for the past few years, port director Humphries said. No fentanyl was likely seized in 2014, and officials seized around 10,000 fentanyl tablets in 2015, he said. This year they seized more than 5 million.

“If we surpass 5 million fentanyl pills, I don’t see a slowdown until demand comes down,” he said. “It’s easy to get addicted to it, so it’s probably going to take a whole-of-government approach to address this until we stop all of this.”


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