Authorities have arrested more than 50 people in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties during the culmination of a months-long effort to curb opioid-related deaths and crime in the region.
The nine-month initiative, dubbed Operation Lethal Dose, involved tri-county law enforcement as well as state and federal agencies, including the FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Final statistics were being tallied on Thursday, but authorities were able to say they seized about 20 firearms, $20,000 cash and varying quantities of dangerous narcotics such as the so-called "gray death," a cocktail of at least three drugs — heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil.
"We’ve seen too many members of our community pass away," said Jason Sandoval, resident agent in charge for the DEA's Charleston field office. "These are the most pernicious drugs ever distributed in the history of drug abuse in the world, and they are on our streets. We're drawing a line today as a unified law enforcement front."
Authorities have been working "in the shadows" to root out drug dealers and others involved in the regional opiate trade, Sandoval said. Arrests took place this week throughout the Lowcountry.
Those arrested face a litany of charges, ranging from child endangerment on the local level to distribution of narcotics that led to death on the federal level, he said.
Year-to-date overdose figures for 2017 in the tri-county were not available on Thursday.
Charleston County's overdose death rate for 2016 was 40 percent to 70 percent higher than the national average, according to information provided by the DEA. Dorchester County's overdose death rate in 2015 was 182 percent higher than the national average, and Berkeley County's rate in that year was 200 percent higher.
Mirroring national trends, authorities are finding greater numbers of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl in the Lowcountry and throughout South Carolina, Sandoval said.
It can be difficult to trace the source of these kinds of drugs because laboratories producing them have begun to pop up in the U.S., potentially giving dealers a source within the country as well as in China or in Mexico, he said. Agents are continuing to investigate where the drugs are coming from.
Chief Deputy Mike Cochran of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office said the operation's goal was to get serious offenders off the street.
"We have people peddling the most serious and harshest of poisons out there and it’s killing people," he said. "We have an overdose in Berkeley County on a weekly basis."
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon called opioids a scourge that cuts across all socioeconomic, racial and other societal barriers.
In some instances during Operation Lethal Dose, authorities encountered drugs being dealt in the vicinity of small children, Cannon said.
But enforcement isn't the only way authorities are combating the opioid epidemic.
The Charleston Police Department has trained 180 officers on the use of Narcan, a medication that works as an antidote to opioid overdoses, said Interim Chief Jerome Taylor. The department is in the midst of equipping all of its officers with the antidote.
Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie said his department is working to do the same.
Cannon noted that local law enforcement are working with the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to help steer addicts who need help into treatment programs.
Other officials present also noted the importance of a holistic approach to curbing the opioid epidemic.
“The seriousness of the threat requires a comprehensive solution," said Andy Moorman, assistant U.S. Attorney in South Carolina. "The solution has multiple parts — treatment, education, public awareness; it also has ... enforcement, good, old fashioned enforcement of federal, state and local drug laws."
Moorman said he hopes the operation sends a message to those involved in the drug trade:
"That we ... will investigate you, we will pursue you, we will prosecute you, we will bring you to justice.”