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George Pyle: Utah cops conduct a sadly honest drug bust

By George Pyle

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 22 2014 04:44 pm • Last Updated Aug 22 2014 06:33 pm

"You ask any D.E.A. man, he’ll say, ‘There’s nothin’ we can do’ ..." — Glenn Frey, "Smuggler’s Blues"

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Google and YouTube have both failed me, so we’ll be relying here on my rapidly fragmenting memory.

But I have a pretty clear image of a scene from the gritty 1980s cop show "Hill Street Blues," where some high city poobahs were striding through the dark halls of Frank Furillo’s rustbelt police station, on their way to bask in the glory of a big drug bust.

As they walked, the big wigs were trying to figure out just what the street value of the seized substance was. Their estimate got bigger practically with every step, until they stood before the TV cameras with a very large, and totally imaginary, monetary value for their bust.

All the street cops could do was roll their eyes and hold their tongues.

Contrast that fictional, in more ways than one, presentation with the real news event staged Thursday right here in Salt Lake City.

Folks from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the brass from more Salt Lake area police departments than most of us knew existed gathered at the local DEA office to announce that they had made a major dent in the local workings of a Mexico-based drug cartel that supplied heroin to users in these parts.

As befits a more media-savvy age, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank didn’t just make up some numbers on the fly. He had someone prepare a chart that showed the amount of the drug seized, along with 21 arrests, added up to 31 pounds, or about 138,000 hits.

That’s about 25 years worth of street-level busts, officials said, or the loss of maybe $2.6 million in profits for the distributors.

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Absent from the media availability was any hint, spoken or on a banner, of a sense of "Mission Accomplished." These folks are, admirably, both smarter and more honest than that.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said the heroin trade in Utah is still, "active and robust," if for no other reason than illegal heroin is cheaper and easier to get than the other big narcotic killer — prescription opiates.

Officials even admitted that the short-term effect of their busts would be to shrink the supply and thus — by laws of economics that are beyond the reach of any cop, lawyer or legislator — boost the price of heroin on the street.

While that might cause some users to go home and rethink their lives, others will just have to work harder — i.e., steal more — to afford their fixes.

"That is the risk that we run," Burbank said.

Nobody in the room claimed that this bust, or the next one, or the next one, would solve the problem. Each one is kind of like those claims that a U.S. drone strike had killed the number two man in al Qaida, conjuring up an image of the terrorist version of a corporate organizational chart with about 500 boxes labeled "Number 2."

The only way out of this swamp, as Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said, is a much more health-based approach that, while doing what one can to reduce supply, takes the only effective step, which is to reduce demand.

That will require more treatment options, in prison and out, special courts that focus on helping drug users of all kinds kick the habit, as well as better monitoring of the over-prescription of the legal opioids that cause so much suffering and death.

Gill is a Democrat. Utah is ruled by Republicans. But Republicans are supposed to be the ones who understand the free market.

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