Boeing drug bust shows alarming spread of prescription pill epidemic

Three dozen former and current Boeing employees were arrested Thursday for illicitly peddling prescription pills. Cases like this one show the challenges for law enforcement in dealing with the epidemic.

Alex Brandon/AP
US Attorney Zane Memeger (l.) with FBI Special Agent in Charge, George Venizelos, and DEA acting Special Agent in Charge Vito Guarino speak during a media availability at the Department of Justice on Thursday, in Philadelphia. More than three dozen people have been charged in a prescription drug sweep that included a raid on a Boeing plant near Philadelphia that makes military helicopters.

The arrests of three dozen former and current Boeing employees on Thursday for illicitly peddling prescription pills at a defense contracting plant near Philadelphia yielded a telling detail: Investigators said there was no kingpin, but rather a "nebulous" system of suppliers bringing pills into a central marketplace.

The bust rose to national prominence largely because of what the suspects worked on: military aircraft like the Chinook and Osprey. Boeing said that it had monitored the employees since it began cooperating with federal agents in 2007 and that no accidents had resulted from the employees' work. The company commended law enforcement "for their rigorous and thorough investigation."

Still, the profile of the suspects – mainly middle-aged male workers from small, blue-collar towns – and the decentralized supply system highlight the challenge facing law enforcement in dealing with a growing national addiction to prescription opioids like Oxycontin.

At the very least, cases like the Boeing arrests are likely to play into a deepening understanding of how the prescription pill epidemic has spread – and how it differs from other epidemics such as the crack epidemic of the 1980s, driven mostly by corner dealers, and the meth epidemic, which functions largely via small networks that resemble social clubs around a small meth lab.

"The goal is to understand the organization and operation of markets, how drugs get distributed, where [dealers and users] drop out and enter the illicit market," says Henry Brownstein, a University of Chicago crime researcher. During a recent meth study, he found that many people, including dealers and police, characterize illicit pharmaceuticals as America's most troublesome drug problem.

Accidental overdose deaths from powerful over-the-counter narcotics have tripled since 2000, with some 11,000 pill-related deaths a year in the United States. The path to addiction can be rapid and overwhelming for users, many of whom don't fit the profile of a stereotypical drug abuser.

"There's a kind of ignorance that, well, it's a medicine; it must be safe. And in fact, [these medications] are some of our most powerful and, when misused, deadliest substances available," says Jim Hall, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse in Miami. "[Users] move quickly from legitimate medical use into dangerous nonmedical use."

The Boeing arrests hint at the normalization of black-market pills, criminologists say. According to indictments, suppliers regularly sold pills to workers during work hours at the plant. "A number of independent sellers and no shortage of buyers were found by investigators," US Attorney Zane David Memeger told reporters.

Concerned employees who called a company hot line about the pill sales in 2007 caused Boeing to contact authorities, leading to a joint investigation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It took four years of undercover work to implicate the main and tertiary players.

The breadth and complexity of the pill epidemic has confounded both legislators and police, largely because it involves substances that are both socially and legally accepted. Also, the substances are governed not just by criminal and civil law, but also by medical regulations.

Phil Price, the chief of a drug task force in rural Cherokee County, Ga., told the Monitor earlier this year that while his agents are increasingly being called upon to stop the pill trade, the dynamics of the trade make it difficult to find perpetrators and prosecute cases.

"What it all boils down to is a societal issue, not a law enforcement issue," Mr. Price said. "I don't know how we can keep everybody from doing harm to themselves."

The law enforcement action at the Delaware County plant near Philadelphia yielded 36 arrests, including a former union president, the FBI said. Fourteen suspects were charged with misdemeanor possession of fewer than 10 pills, while 23 people were charged with trafficking penalties for selling up to 1,500 doses.

The sale of prescription pills, the FBI noted, has become a major focus of its investigations across the country. “These sales placed the individual abusers, as well as society at large, at risk,” said Vito S. Guarino, DEA acting special agent in charge.

The raid also highlighted how many middle-class workers at a major defense contractor were willing to chance their careers by becoming black marketeers. And it put into question Boeing's employee drug-testing procedures. The company said that it has a policy of "no tolerance of drugs or alcohol on Boeing property or consumption or sale on premises" and that it drug tests workers if there's suspicion of drug use.

"The [Boeing] suspects put their careers at risk, but they probably didn't imagine there was much of a risk or anything that would draw a lot of attention to them," says Mr. Brownstein. "It's a legitimate drug; it's just getting to the wrong people."

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