Legislature partly to blame for fentanyl scourge, Sheriff Balaam says

By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has become Washoe County’s second-most deadly illegal drug, Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam said on Nevada Newsmakers.

Balaam told host Sam Shad that fentanyl abuse is growing, partially because other illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine and black-market marijuana are sometimes laced with it.

“It is a major issue, we have the Substance-Abuse Task Force and fentanyl is our No. 2 killer in this county right now,” Balaam said. “Methamphetamine is still No. 1 but fentanyl is climbing as the No. 2.”


Five years ago, deaths due to fentanyl were almost unheard of in Washoe County, with seven deaths attributed to its abuse in 2016. In 2020, the number of deaths attributed to the synthetic opioid rose to 55, according to Washoe County statistics.

Many times, people who purchase illegal drugs — including black-market marijuana — are unaware that their purchase has been laced with fentanyl, Balaam said.

“Over the last year-and-a-half, it has slowly progressed,” Balaam said of fentanyl abuse. “And I can tell you on our interdiction side, almost everything we are seizing, whether it is marijuana, whether it is the harder core drugs, they are laced with fentanyl.”

Veteran Nevadan Journalist Ray Hagar is known for fair and tough reporting and invigorating commentary.

Even a very small dose of fentanyl, which was originally produced to help cancer patients with severe pain, can kill, Balaam said.

“It it a major concern,” Balaam said. “It is a very big concern of mine and my office. We had a manager of a local supermarket, her niece just graduated. On graduation night, she smoked marijuana laced with fentanyl and died. That is what we are seeing. This is a very, very potent drug.”

Balaam blamed the Legislature’s recent reforms to give lighter punishments for small amounts of illegal drugs for the rise in fentanyl abuse.

“In the last (legislative) session, we changed some of the laws when it comes to trafficking. It is necessary to have 100 grams (of an illegal drug) for level-one trafficking. Well, that’s about 280 — depending on the pill size — to 400 pills of fentanyl, which they usually will cut into four doses. So that is anywhere from 800 to 1,600 doses of fentanyl. And it takes a very small amount (to be deadly). And so for us …, that is a major concern.

“If you imagine a baby-food jar stuffed full of powder, that’s probably still not 100 grams of fentanyl,” Balaam said. “So for us to go after those who are really pushing this onto our streets, it is very difficult. Our undercover teams are targeting it. We are looking for it.”

Illegal drug dealers are lacing other drugs with fentanyl to increase potency and the number of those who become addicted, to keep their business booming, Balaam said.

“Unfortunately, they are lacing it with everything because it is so addictive,” Balaam said. “The dealers, they want to you get addicted as quickly as possible, so they are lacing it with everything. And so you may think, like this poor niece, you bought a joint or a little bag of marijuana but yet it has fentanyl in it and if you don’t know, the next thing you know, unfortunately, you are taking a hit and you fall over and you’re dead.”

Overall, illegal drug seizures are up, but it is not severely wounding the drug suppliers, dealers and cartels, Balaam said.

“Last year, we held the record for the entire state for seizures,” he said. “When it came to money seizures, drug seizures, we seized up here more than they do in Vegas.”

Yet Balaam said the seizures are just a small percentage of the total illegal drug inventory. He said his office is only seizing about “10 to 15 percent” of the total drug traffic, “because we are not out there 24 hours a day. They know our routes. They communicate very well and when they start picking up on a tactic we are doing, they’ll change their tactics. So we are not on the road all the time. We try to mix it up but the amount we are seizing, there is a lot more flowing through.”

Despite legal cannabis sales throughout Nevada, the black-market marijuana industry is still thriving, Balaam said.

“I can tell you that the black market is alive and well,” he said. “We set the record for the state in seizures of marijuana last year. We seized over 2,000-plus pounds in one stop. That was a record for the state.”

Black market marijuana sales remain robust since the price of the illegal version of cannabis is not increased by state and local wholesale and retail taxes, Balaam said.

“They are just undercutting the legal dispensaries,” he said.

DUIs related to driving under the influence of marijuana are also increasing, partially because officers are better trained to spot drivers high on pot, Balaam said.

“What we are seeing is an increase in DUI/drugs,” he said. “So you are seeing more crashes with people under the influence of marijuana and you are seeing more DUIs that way. You are not seeing them drive slowly but you are seeing that it (marijuana) slows down your reactions, just like alcohol. Now we are identifying it because we have trained everybody in our region to identify those, whereas before, we didn’t train them.”

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