News 13 Investigates: Heroin Highway

Local agencies between Atlanta an Asheville work to stop traffickers. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

Every year, nearly 4,000 pounds of heroin is confiscated at the U.S. border.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said drug cartels in Mexico are bringing it in at astronomical rates.

Some of the that heroin is making it's way to our communities in Western North Carolina through Atlanta.

While the drug problem is obvious, the solution is not.

So, why can't the flow of heroin be stopped?

'Somehow, it takes over ...'

Josh Laws started drinking in high school. He said that habit quickly turned much worse and by age 18 he was trying hard drugs.

"Once I started, I was using cocaine and then I went from that to pills and meth and that led to heroin," said Laws.

Laws' story is far too common these days -- aocal man who found himself caught up in the ever growing world of opioid addiction.

"It's a euphoric feeling, a calm warm feeling. It feels really good, it's really easy to keep wanting to do it," said Laws.

Over the next decade, Laws went from using to selling, then trafficking.

He was bringing heroin to Haywood County, selling to just about anybody.

"There were times I would make $6,000 or $8,000 a week," Laws said.

Laws said it was easy, and he could quickly sell as much as he could smuggle in from Atlanta. He said, usually, he would hide it in his motorcycle's saddlebag.

"There is so much of it, I think it's just getting missed. Short of stopping everybody, you're not going to get it all," said Laws.

He has been clean and out of jail for three years now, and said he never thought the crisis would have exploded like it has.

Finding the drugs

Detective Jake Staggs spends most of his time trying to find and take the heroin in Henderson County before it takes another life.

He admits it's very difficult.

"We are never going to have the manpower to be able to completely get rid of all the drugs," said Staggs.

He's part of a two-man street crimes team through the Henderson County Sheriff's Office.

Staggs and his partner are trained to pick out which cars could be carrying illegal drugs.

He couldn't tell us exactly what they look for, but said traffickers know how to blend in.

"They are not going to be in vehicles you suspect. They are going to be driving nice cars, obeying the speed limit," said Staggs.

During News 13's ride along, Staggs demonstrated his search methods as he looked through a robbery suspect's car for drugs.

"I start with driver's sector, then move to back seat just to make sure I cover everything well and don't miss anything," said Staggs, as he looked through every item, and under each seat.

He even tested a brown substance in a medicine dropper for kids.

Staggs said he's found heroin hidden everywhere -- in secret compartments, safes, sometimes behind car speakers.

He said he tries to track the drugs coming up from Atlanta to distributors' homes in Western North Carolina.

"If I can start with the small fish and get to the big fish who's selling to your children, that means a lot to me, means I've done something," said Staggs.

Stopping the supply

Buncombe County authorities said they're seeing the same problem -- an overhwleming amount of opioids flowing in to our area.

"It is an extremely huge problem for us because it's supply and demand, and when that demand is out there, they're going to meet that because it's so profitable," said Capt. Randy Smart, of the Buncombe County Anticrime Task Force.

Smart said part of the problem is that the crackdown on prescriptions has raised the price per pill to about $40. He said a hit of heroin costs as little as $4, especially when mixed with fentanyl from overseas.

He said the other challenge is that users are often dealers, as well.

Smart said that in 2016, they siezed nearly 400 grams of heroin. So far this year, they've taken nearly 350 grams off the streets. He also added that they made 42 arrests in 2017 related to heroin and opoiods.

"The trafficking and movement from the drugs comes from a network that's already in place and has been. It's moved in here by vehicles, by a person actually going to a point of contact and bringing it back," Smart said.

It's a network that's just 200 miles away -- in Atlanta.

"For some reason, these cartels have utilized Atlanta for their drug shipments heading east," DEA Special Agent Daniel Salter said.

News 13 went to Atlanta to ask the DEA why the stream of heroin keeps flowing.

"Because, right now, the border is pourous and, use your imagination, that's how they're smuggling it in to this country and we can't search every car that comes across," Salter said.

Salter said agents sieze about 4,000 pounds of heroin at the Mexican border each year, with an unknown amount getting through undetected.

He said the cartel is getting smarter, using families with kids driving mini vans to carry the drugs.

"We got to continue to hit these cartels and hit them right in their mouth. We want them to get out of our country, stop bringing that junk in there," Salter said.

He said they confiscate about 500 pounds of heroin a year in Atlanta, which has a known open air heroin market called the bluffs.

Building a new life

Back in Canton, Laws said the answer isn't easy.

"It's because it's so addictive. Once your body gets used to that, you got to have it or you've got to have help to get off it," said Laws.

He now spends his days helping build new homes as a plumber.

And he's building a new life for himself, as well. He's been clean for three years.

Since then, he's gotten married and tries as hard as he can to make up for the moments he lost with wife and daughter.

"Without them, I probably wouldn't have made it this far. I'm sure I woldn't have made it this far. They give me the want to to get there," said Laws.

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