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October 18, 2018

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The plague of our time’: New Las Vegas billboards intensify opioid fight

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A photo of a billboard is displayed during a news conference at FBI headquarters Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. Law enforcement agencies and Clear Channel Outdoor announced a 1-year partnership to fight illegal opioid sales.

Billboard Campaign to Fight Illegal Opioid Sales

Aaron Rouse, special agent in charge of the FBI's Las Vegas Division, speaks during a news conference at FBI headquarters Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. Law enforcement agencies and Clear Channel Outdoor announced a 1-year partnership to fight illegal opioid sales. Launch slideshow »

If combined, the number of people killed in gunfire and vehicle crashes in the U.S. last year still trailed the 72,000 victims in fatal drug overdoses, and opioid abuse is the main assassin, according to federal data.

To attempt to put a dent in what Aaron Rouse, FBI Las Vegas’ special agent in charge, described as a “national tragedy requiring national response,” electronic billboards in Southern Nevada are broadcasting a uniform message.

In bold-type white and red letters, the 10 Clear Channel Outdoor signs, dotted across the valley, including the tourist corridor, read, “Opioid Addiction Doesn’t Discriminate: Report Prescription Abuse (at) tips.fbi.gov."

The one-year campaign revealed Wednesday — launched by the FBI, its federal partners and the media company — is an effort to catch illicit pushers of opioids, “whether they’re wearing a doctor’s coat or they’re working on a street corner,” Rouse said.

Valley residents are encouraged to contact authorities if they suspect illegal distribution of the drug. Tips can be made anonymously.

The partnership with Clear Channel is similar to one in 2017, which focused on fighting human trafficking. That campaign garnered international attention, and law enforcement agencies were able to pursue dozens of cases with the help of the community, Rouse said.

In addition, the office of the U.S. attorney in Nevada last year became one of 12 districts to be assigned a prosecutor specialized in pursuing cases against medical professionals violating federal drug laws, said Andrew Duncan, executive assistant at that federal office.

Three doctors, a pharmacist and three other health care professionals have since been charged, Duncan said. The illicit use of the drug “has become one of the biggest social and criminal problems facing the United States and our community.”

Information relating to how opioids, including their synthetic iterations, such as Fentanyl, are combated locally is not widely available. In either case, the issue is difficult to quantify or rank by jurisdiction because it’s a “nationwide issue,” Rouse said. “This is the plague of our time.”

That’s because there have been significant increases in drug overdose deaths. The number of victims jumped from about 50,000 in 2015 to roughly 63,000 the following year, and then again last year, when an estimated 72,000 were killed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Synthetic opioids alone killed an estimated 30,000 people last year in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Tiny amounts of the powdery substance can be fatal.

Street-level Fentanyl, which is fairly inexpensive, also is making its way into other drugs.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Nevada are seeing it in oxycodone tablets and heroin, perhaps without the knowledge of unsuspecting victims, said Daniel Neill, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Las Vegas office.

Metro Police has seen it in ecstasy, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo told the Sun in September.

The epidemic can affect anyone, Rouse said. “Opioid abuse knows no boundaries. It can destroy lives no matter what your social status, gender, your age, your race (are). It impacts students and CEOs equally.”