Although marijuana remains the most widely used drug in Rutherford County, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, when asked to discuss the impact of drugs in their communities, officers frequently mention heroin, especially when it is mixed with fentanyl.

TBI’s 2018 “Crime in Tennessee” report details the volume and nature of criminal across the state by police jurisdiction. Most of Rutherford County’s local departments have seen a double digit increase in narcotics cases. The bureau estimates that 80 percent of all crimes in Tennessee have some connection to drugs.

La Vergne reported 353 narcotics cases in 2018, down 1.12 percent from 2017, the report said. However, Murfreesboro reported 1,259 narcotics cases, a 26.41 percent increase from the prior year. The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office reported (251 cases, up 11.56 percent.) And Smyrna reported 334 cases, a 26.04 percent increase.

Heroin in Murfreesboro

The Murfreesboro Police Department investigates a lot of heroin and meth distribution, as those drugs have seen the biggest increase locally, said narcotics unit supervisor Sgt. Chris Ashley. From a public safety standpoint, heroin overdoses pose a huge problem. Ashley said the department investigated one such case the night before he spoke to the Murfreesboro Post recently.

“Heroin laced with fentanyl is really hurting people,” Ashley said, adding that it affects people from all walks of life. The MPD is seeing it more frequently at Middle Tennessee State University, he said.

Heroin and meth come primarily from Mexico, Ashely said. Fentanyl travels from China to Mexico, where it is mixed with heroin.

“People addicted to it (heroin) know there is a level of fentanyl,” he said. “The addiction is just so powerful they take that chance.”

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Crime ‘nexus’

Because the heroin-fentanyl mixture is so addictive, addicts frequently commit crimes to support their habit, Ashley said.

RCSO Det. Todd Sparks said he agrees that the opioid crisis is creating more crime.

“There is absolutely a one-hundred percent nexus between drug addiction and property crimes,” Sparks said.

Murfreesboro’s narcotics problem has become so bad that MPD has asked for two new narcotics detectives in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, which was approved by the City Council on June 13. Positions for 12 new patrol officers also were approved.

Ashley, who is approaching 26 years in law enforcement, said, “I never thought we would have a heroin issue in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and I grew up here.”

The sergeant said he thinks a lot of heroin addicts took opioid pills for medical reasons and then when they could not get the pills, heroin became a cheaper substitute. Meth is another “cheap” drug. Heroin costs $100 to $140 per gram, while meth costs $40 to $50 a gram, he said. Addicts typically buy one-tenth of a gram at a time.

Ashley said he encourages families who have leftover narcotics prescriptions to dispose of them properly to prevent others from getting ahold of them. Many police headquarters have drop-off boxes.

In La Vergne, like most other cities, marijuana is the No. 1 illegal drug of choice, but also like everywhere else, police have seen a large increase in heroin use and overdoses, as well as fentanyl and opioids, Police Chief Mike Walker said.

Marijuana is a misdemeanor offense, but opioids are a growing issue, as finding the suppliers takes a great deal of time, Walker said. The department added a detective this year, and he has asked for additional help for the upcoming budget.

It's not just police chiefs and detectives reporting these crime trends. The Murfreesboro Post spoke to five rank-and-file officers from the La Vergne Police Department: Field Training Officer Michael Cohea; Patrol Officer David Vega; K-9 Officer Justin Darby; Field Training Officer John Hughes; and Field Training Officer Felicia Altheide. They confirmed that heroin laced with fentanyl is a huge problem, although they said that overdoses are down “somewhat.”

Even as local police struggle to combat opioids, the problem is plaguing communities across the state.

Statewide, there were 58,427 narcotics violations in 2018, a gain of only 0.7 percent from 2017, the TBI said. Marijuana accounted for 50.3 percent of those cases, with stimulants coming second at 21.6 percent and narcotics accounting for about 19 percent.

Officers in danger

Michael Reynolds, regional substance abuse coordinator for CenterStone healthcare system, works with people going through drug court programs throughout the region. About a month ago, his office knew of three overdoses from marijuana laced with fentanyl.

Fentanyl is such a dangerous compound that as little as a few grains of it coming in contact with other drugs can overdose addicts, Reynolds said. That holds true with fentanyl being present at drug scenes and getting on officers’ skin.

“That’s a scary thing for law enforcement, going in to serve warrants or do a drug bust,” Reynolds said. “If a suspect has fentanyl on him and the officer touches him or even a table, that can result in a fatal risk.”

While opioids are the hot button issue right now, statewide there is still a lot of meth, Reynolds said.

Clients may say “‘I use heroin and fentanyl, but I never really stopped using meth,’” Reynolds said. Other drugs continue to pose a problem. In-patient clinics have the most admissions for marijuana and alcohol.

“You can use anything to excess and create legal and emotional problems,” Reynolds said.

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