The Pittsburgh area’s intersecting interstate highways make it ripe for drug trafficking, and a push for a federal designation as a hot-spot aims to bring federal resources to the region.
Petitions coordinated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties ask the Office of National Drug Control Police to name the trio the latest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Local law enforcement officials say the funds will fight the flow of drugs, particularly the ongoing opioid epidemic ravaging the region. If the petitions are successful, the region would be only the second new designation in more than 15 years.
Pittsburgh is the only metropolitan area in the country’s top 25 largest that is not part of a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said Stephen R. Kaufman, First Assistant U.S. Attorney in Pennsylvania’s Western District. Kaufman said the area has always has a serious drug-trafficking problem.
“It’s gotten worse, if anything,” he said.
Known as HIDTAs, the designation recognizes an area has a unique drug-trafficking problem and allocates federal funds to help combat the problem. The funds are important not just because they provide resources to areas that might not have the budget to adequately fight the flow of drugs, but because they can be spent in a variety of ways, Kaufman said.
“Everything from buy money to equipment to overtime for state and local police officers,” he said. “Those are valuable resources.”
Buy money refers to money used by law enforcement officers in undercover operations to purchase drugs from dealers.
Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier said his office does not have the assets for buy money “to go beyond a low-level dealer.” Federal resources would change that, he said.
“What we can develop are more joint efforts, joint databases, and we can share people,” Lozier said. “For example, we recently had a very potent stamp bag and ... it killed a number of people in all three counties. It’s the HIDTA with that federal assistance that would make it easier for us to go across county lines and work together.”
Federal resources would allow for a faster turnaround on lab results, he said, and help law enforcement trace drugs back to sources in drug hubs like New York and Chicago.
“As a team, we’re asking to be able to work together and to bring in federal assets to help us coordinate this local effort to track the bigger dealers back to their source,” he said.
Petitions coordinated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties to receive the designation have been in the works for more than a year, Kaufman said. He hopes to have a decision from the Office of National Drug Control Policy - which oversees the HIDTA program - in a matter of months.
There are 28 areas that include 49 states, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands. Some are near or in Pennsylvania, but none include the southwestern part of the state.
Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties are part of the Liberty Mid-Atlantic HIDTA, which also includes Camden, N.J. and New Castle County in Delaware. The Appalachia HIDTA boarders Western Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania State Police in the southeastern part of the state work closely with the HIDTA group in that area, which has been an asset, according to Cpl. Adam Reed.
“It gives us an opportunity to really form some positive partnerships with all the organizations associated with the anti-drug initiative within that area,” he said.
Areas in Alaska surrounding Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbainks were designated a HIDTA in May - the first new designation since 2001. Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties would be the second.
Interstates 70 and 79, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Parkways and the relatively close I-80 crisscross the region. The many of major arteries mean fairly direct routes to and from drug hubs like New York, northern New Jersey, Philadelphia and Detroit, Kaufman said.
“We do have drugs coming in from those various directions,” he said. “On the ground here, we have very serious drug-trafficking problems with fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. It’s not just heroin anymore. The result of that has been the increase in overdoses that every county has seen - both fatal overdoses and non-fatal overdoses.”