A Conversation with Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan
Updated: Feb 5, 2018
Bridget Brennan has been New York City’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor since 1998. Brennan’s office is responsible for felony narcotics investigations and prosecutions in the city’s five boroughs. The office was created in 1971 in response to the heroin epidemic and the related spike in violent crime. With the current opioid crisis, Brennan and her team find themselves again at the forefront of a city-wide crisis.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, Brennan has been a prosecutor since 1983, when she joined the New York County District Attorney’s Office as an Assistant District Attorney. Realizing the essential role of the crack epidemic, Brennan moved to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor in 1992.
Here is a transcript of an interview conducted in early December 2017. Some comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan in her office at the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. Photo: Zein Jardaneh
You’ve been at the narcotics office for 25 years. What’s the same? What’s different?
What’s the same is that powerful, addictive drugs have caused cascading problems. More people are addicted now than at any point I can remember. I don’t think the lure of addictive drugs is ever going to completely go away. But what we’ve seen historically is when the drugs are widely available, they become abused. They create their own customer base. They’re addictive and powerful. And so, they just take off and just wreak havoc.
We’re also seeing something we had never seen before with heroin. Heroin, back until the late 90s, pretty much all came from Asia. That is a long distance to travel, and it was very expensive. We never had large multi-kilo seizures of heroin back then. Then we started to see heroin coming in at much greater volume because Colombians started refining heroin and Mexicans were moving it… It was also unusual to see heroin purity rates higher than 10 percent. The potency now on the street, it’s more like 40 to 60 percent.
How and when did you see the current crisis unfold?
The situation was under control for a while. Then, around 2008 to 2009, we started to see large heroin seizures starting to escalate at the same time we saw addictive prescription drugs on the black market.
It’s interesting to me when I hear people banter about that now that we’ve really cracked down on pills, people are turning to heroin. And if you talk to treatment providers, they’ll tell you the same thing: what they saw surging was young people hooked on pills. But then the pills would have a higher street cost than heroin and so they would turn to heroin. So [treatment providers] saw it going up at the same time, too.
What really matters is how cheap it is. Then it became clear quickly that we were getting banged up with heroin; our seizures started to go through the roof. We had record seizures starting in 2012, and we’ve had a new record every year since.
The next thing that we got hit hard with was fentanyl [a synthetic opioid that is 50 times as potent as morphine]. We never or rarely saw non-pharmaceutical fentanyl. Then all of a sudden it was coming in with loads of heroin from Mexico. Oftentimes the people transporting it didn’t know they were transporting it, the people getting it didn’t know they were getting it. Just to provide context, in 2016 we seized 16 kilos of pure fentanyl in SNP prosecutions in 2016. And from January to early December, we’ve seized 170 kilos or more.
We’re also seeing a bit of a different trend with fentanyl seizures. For a while, what we were seizing was almost always pure fentanyl. Now we’re seizing more fentanyl mixes, pre-mixed. It might be fentanyl mixed with heroin and then some other pharmaceuticals, and we’re seeing fentanyl mixed with cocaine.
How would you characterize the crisis in Staten Island? The Bronx?
What happened in Staten Island is very consistent with national trends where you saw over-prescribing of pills. The demographic in Staten Island is wealthier, more middle class, than what we have historically seen with drug epidemics. But, the abuse problem cuts across all demographics. It’s not exclusively white, it’s not exclusively middle class. It’s everywhere in every demographic in Staten Island. It went from pills to heroin, and now fentanyl’s in the mix.
In the Bronx, you have drug use similar to what we’re seeing in Staten Island, areas that never had abuse issues before, like Riverdale. But the South Bronx, there always was an underlying opioid addiction issue dating way back to the first heroin epidemic. And when the drugs became widely available and cheaper, it just got worse than ever. You did see new users come into the picture, but if you actually look at the demographics of overdose death in the Bronx, the age range of those who die is high. They’re older, which reflects the fact that there was that long-standing abuse issue there.
What’s been done to combat the crisis?
We worked with agencies we had never worked with before, because it just hadn’t been necessary up until this point. We worked very closely with the state Department of Health, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Postal Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the NYPD, Homeland Security, drug enforcement task forces… everybody’s got a piece of it.
We worked with the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement [under the State Department of Health] to understand where the pills on the black market were coming from. We obtained that information from them to tackle organized distribution because if you turn that off, you’re going to have more impact. You’re going to shut down hundreds of kilos instead of a couple. But those couple can still kill a lot of people.
Honestly, this problem should have been managed long ago. There are many layers of regulation over these narcotic drugs. It shouldn’t be a local prosecutor who’s leading the charge on this. That’s not the most effective way of doing it. It really needs to be the regulatory authorities, and I think they’ve stepped it up.
We’ve prosecuted doctors. We convicted one of manslaughter, and in November we got a decision from an appellate court affirming his conviction with very clear language that those kinds of criminally reckless prescribing practices can be the subject of a manslaughter investigation and conviction.
While we devote a lot of resource to prosecutions, we’re also devoting significant resources to getting out a prevention message. This summer we worked with a professional production company and produced a powerful video. We’ve also worked to get postings on social media informing people about how pervasive fentanyl is in the black market in New York, and it could be in any drug that you buy on the black market. It’s critically important that young people understand how dangerous these substances are.
What’s left to do?
I think there could be stronger regulatory oversight on the doctors and their prescribing practices. Most doctors were taught to prescribe in a way that pushed many of the pills out there, and they need to unlearn that. They’re now required to take continuing medical education courses on this, but it’s not enough. There needs to be very close oversight and, the doctors have to be powerfully reminded if their practices are dangerous practices, and not just with letters coming from the health department. They need to have calls and visits. Their conduct may not be criminal. It may be poor decision making, bad training, whatever you want to call it, but it’s still pushing those drugs out there.
On the enforcement side, we could use a lot more help. The heroin and the fentanyl, most of it is coming in to the U.S. from the southwest border. But the precursor chemicals, such as fentanyl, is going from China to Mexico and then to us. There could be much more robust enforcement on that level because what you really want to do is cut off the supply at the highest point possible before it gets anywhere near the street.
We also have these major pharmaceutical powerhouses that have a lot of clout and advertise on television all the time. Every American child is taught through advertisements that all of your problems can be solved by taking a pill. That’s a very bad message. And media companies are also at play here, because they’re getting revenue off this too. But that kind of messaging is very harmful. And there’s definitely precedent for regulating messaging. Tobacco ads, alcohol, children’s cereal, a lot of those ads were forcibly removed. But those were single industries that didn’t have the same kind of power, and now with a fractured media that’s desperate for advertising dollars, it’ll take a lot more work.
What are your biggest frustrations?
Not enough people are going into treatment. The statistics from the State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, and the people that we refer from the criminal justice system, show that the number of people going into treatment is actually declining. And it’s not because there’s no insurance for it. The absolute numbers are declining and that is a great puzzle to me.
Most of the remedies, to the extent you want to call them that, that are being promoted, are narcan [an opioid overdose reversal drug] and district-wide distribution of narcan. But if you ask me what we really need, is to find a way to bring people in the door into treatment. Narcan is just not a long-term solution.
In places like the Bronx, it’s not that the infrastructure isn’t there. They do have quite a few clinics, and people are either not coming in the door or are not staying in once they get there. We need to rethink our treatment modalities. How we approach it now was primarily developed during the crack epidemic. It’s a different user group. Times are different.
Is there any cause for optimism?
I do think that pills have at the very least leveled off, and they may be starting to decline. And that’s with all the restrictions and oversight that’s been put in place, plus prosecutions. There’s some reason to be optimistic there because pills are the gateway to 80 to 90 percent of those who report an addiction to heroin. If you can slam that door shut, people are not that likely to start their abusive narcotic drugs with heroin, they’re more likely to start with the pills.