NASHVILLE - Law enforcement officials fear Tennessee is about to experience a flood of cheap, supercharged heroin as Mexican drug cartels rush to capitalize on residents' widespread addiction to prescription pain pills.
"We are seeing an influx of imported meth, but what I'm more concerned about ... is this proliferation of heroin we're seeing," Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn told Gov. Bill Haslam last week. "Heroin will be our next meth."
It's already showing up in Tennessee and could become a big problem over the next three to four years, he predicted.
That includes Chattanooga, said Capt. Nathan Vaughn, of the Chattanooga police special investigations unit.
"We have seen somewhat of an increase," Vaughn said. But, he added, "currently [heroin] is not presenting itself as any more of an issue than other drugs. Certainly that could change, as overdose issues associated with heroin are considerable when compared to drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines."
Gwyn was responding to Haslam's question about whether Tennessee's crackdown on illegal, locally produced methamphetamine is increasing meth inports. The state earlier this year added yet more restrictions of purchases on meth's main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, which is found in many cold and allergy medicines.
Meth imports from Mexico are indeed up and local lab busts are down, Gwyn said. But he fears the heroin influx will pose an even bigger problem, with more deadly repercussions, because the drug is sometimes laced with an even more powerful and dangerous narcotic, fentanyl.
The synthetic opioid, used for severe pain, is "very potent. A hundred times more potent than heroin," Gwyn said.
Pure fentanyl is so deadly that it can prove fatal if simply absorbed through the skin, Gwyn said.
"By touching it you will die," he said, noting that is particularly problematic for police.
Moreover, with Tennesseans' already high rate of addiction to legally prescribed narcotic opioids, there's a ready market, Gwyn warned. He noted that TBI undercover agents have already made purchases of fentanyl, sometimes in pure form.
"The Mexican cartels have taken over the heroin trade from the Asians," the director said. "And we're seeing this heroin come up from Columbia and Mexico into the United States."
Cartels have "drastically" cut the price on their heroin, Gwyn said, citing experiences in other states. "I feel like what my intelligence is telling me [is] that they will target Tennessee because of our high rate of citizens addicted to hydrocodone pills, which is synthetic heroin."
Haslam raised the issue of meth lab production during his public hearing with Gwyn on the TBI's proposed budget for 2015-2016.
"I think it [heroin threat] is a big concern," Haslam later told reporters, adding other governors in states "all up and down the East Coast" are discussing the problem. "We've been battling meth abuse and prescription drugs and to think ... the heroin situation could be more concerning for all of us."
A day earlier, Safety and Homeland Security Commission Bill Gibbons raised similar concerns about heroin during his budget meeting with Haslam.
Gibbons said the favored heroin pipeline comes straight up Interstate 75 into Tennessee. The interstate passes through Chattanooga. He said state troopers are already mobilizing to identify and stop drug-cartel vehicles.
In addition to meth, Tennessee has also cracked down on prescription narcotic shopping by thousands of residents, limiting the numbers of doctors they can see to get access to legal drugs for pain control.
"It's kind of another consequence of having a pill problem in the state," Gwyn told Haslam regarding the heroin. "It's an economic thing. Why pay $40, $50 for a hydrocodone tablet when you can pay $10, $15 for a bag of heroin?"
States already experiencing the heroin deluge have had some success with boosting prison sentences for smugglers, Gwyn said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org and or 615-255-0550.