Alfred "Chip" Cooke, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of DEA’s Merrillville, Indiana, District Office in the Chicago Field Division, is this episode's guest. During the interview, Chip discusses the importance of DEA's "One Pill Can Kill" initiative, how colleges can get involved with Take Back Day, and gives advice to campus substance misuse professionals.
Rich Lucey: Hi, everyone and welcome to this episode of Prevention Profiles Take Five.
I'm Rich Lucey, Senior Prevention Program Manager in the Drug Enforcement Administration's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.
I'm excited about today's guest who is part of the DEA family.
It's Alfred "Chip" Cooke, and let me tell you a little bit about Chip before we get into the interview.
So Chip Cooke is the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of DEA's Merrillville, Indiana district office in the Chicago Field Division.
He oversees DEA operations across northern Indiana to include the management of three DEA field offices.
Chip began his federal career in 1996 in San Diego, California as a United States Border Patrol agent.
In 2000 he was hired by DEA as a Special Agent and assigned to DEA's Baltimore, Maryland district office.
In 2011 Chip was promoted to Supervisory Special Agent of DEA's Baltimore Tactical Diversion Squad and in 2017 he transferred to DEA's Special Operations Division where he served as liaison to the National Security Agency.
In 2018 he was promoted to Chief of DEA's International Affairs Section at DEA headquarters, and in 2020 he became Chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force Section at DEA headquarters.
Chip earned a Masters Degree in Administration of Justice and Homeland Security from Salve Regina University, and he holds certificates in management, leadership and strategic planning from Marquette University and Georgetown University.
So with that, Chip, welcome to the podcast.
Chip: Hey, Rich, great, thank you.
Lucey: Very excited to have you on today because we know you're doing some great stuff there in Indiana, especially with the campus police.
We'll get into that in just a little bit, but before we do we'll get into the first question.
I know that the Chicago Field Division serves Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
And as I mentioned in your bio, your area of responsibility covers northern Indiana.
What are the drug threats facing communities in northern Indiana and throughout the greater United States now?
Chip: Rich, right now what we see in northern Indiana really does mirror what we are seeing nationally.
The illicit fentanyl here in our area and across the nation flooding our streets flooding our neighborhoods, flooding our communities.
Illicit fentanyl injected and laced in every imaginable drug out there.
That is our top threat.
That is our top priority.
Illicit fentanyl begins in chemical form in Asia, primarily in China.
It is then shipped and manufactured into the illicit fentanyl form in areas such as Mexico where it is injected and laced into a variety of different drugs and then sent north to us here in the United States.
That is the drive for all of the overdose deaths, overdose drug deaths that are occurring here in the United States right now.
Illicit fentanyl really is public enemy number one.
Lucey: And of course we'll get into that a little bit more with counterfeit pills and such, but I am curious.
Is there a specific route if you will, say from Mexico to Indiana and the Midwest like where you cover?
Is there a specific point of entry that we are always being aware of?
Chip: Really it's anywhere along that southwestern border, right, from San Diego all the way through the southeastern corridor of Texas.
And once it crosses over the border, to get to us here in the Midwest it does take a variety of routes and routes and highways to get here.
And we are here in northern Indiana just a stone's throw away from Chicago.
And Chicago as we know has its fair share of violence, and it has its fair share of embedded international and national, regional drug traffickers who are spreading drugs from Chicago.
That being said, northern Indiana in particular is becoming a miniature source for methamphetamine and heroin.
We have many examples of drug traffickers from Chicago who are actually coming down to northern Indiana to be sourced for their methamphetamine in particular, which is kind of backwards from the way it used to be.
I know when I started my career in the prevention field, and this was in the early '90's when meth was first on the scene it was always considered a west coast issue.
Those of us who lived and worked on the east coast, we kind of watched it from afar.
But really over time it has really moved into a significant drug of concern in the Midwest, really everywhere.
But it really has moved from the west to other parts of the country over the last 20-30 years.
Chip: Without a doubt it is no longer a geographic specific focused type of drug.
And something we've seen too, the domestic manufacturing of methamphetamine has declined and that's because of the influx of methamphetamine coming into the United States from the Mexican cartels.
They really have their hand on it.
They're really controlling and driving that influx and that flood into the United States.
Lucey: Well, I'm going to move on to my second question and it really talks about law enforcement and prevention working together.
So DEA's primary mission as we know is to enforce the nation's federal drug laws, and yet prevention is a very important component of supporting that mission.
And as I read in your bio, you have an extensive career in law enforcement, but as I've gotten to know you over the last six years of my time at DEA, you also are pretty involved in the prevention arena.
So based on your experiences as a Special Agent, how do you see law enforcement and prevention working together?
Chip: There is a natural connection that exists between prevention and law enforcement.
In fact the nature of law enforcement as a profession, as a field, as a calling, the nature of any person who gets involved in law enforcement is to prevent crime and to make our communities safer and healthier and happier.
And that's what we see with our prevention.
Partners and experts in the field, they they're trying to make sure people are healthier and happier and safer.
So there really is that, like I said, that natural connection and very much would be, I guess I would call it a hand in glove approach.
And here locally in Indiana we do work closely with prevention specialists.
And what we are doing here in Indiana in the northern district and also in the southern district covered by our Indianapolis district office, what we're doing here in the state really is no different than what my DEA colleagues throughout the country, throughout the nation are doing.
We are constantly finding new prevention programs out there, new prevention committees and specialists and working with them, having conversations with them.
And something that I find interesting too about being in the enforcement side of things, sometimes we are a bit of I would say the Paul Reveres to the trends and the traffic.
We see things first coming.
We see these threats coming first to our nation because we are in the belly of the beast with these drug cartels and fighting them and battling them.
So when we meet with prevention experts, sure, they share their experiences and what they are seeing with us too.
But because we really have that frontline view of drugs coming into the United States and how that is affecting our nation and our communities and neighborhoods, I have found that prevention experts really do rely on law enforcement and drug law enforcement, DEA to kind of give them a heads up.
Hey, what are the trends that you are seeing next?
And that proves to be very helpful for our partners.
Lucey: I'm very interested that you referred to the two different fields as a calling if you will because I certainly know friends and family of mine in the law enforcement field have characterized working in law enforcement as a calling.
And I'll say somewhat fittingly there are very few people that I know who specifically set out to work in the prevention field.
It's not typically something that people set out to do.
Many people follow along a winding road as I did to get into this field, and yet for those individuals who work in the prevention field and are extremely passionate and committed to it, for them too it ultimately ends up being a calling.
It's what they have figured out that they're meant to do.
And so I appreciate that.
I also like what you just said about kind of the Paul Revere characterization if you will.
I really do want to give a shout out for all of our listeners who are looking to identify what are the drug trends happening in their regions, in their states.
It really is an opportunity for you to connect with your local DEA office.
We are spread out all across the United States, as all over the world, but for those domestically if you're interested in connecting with your local DEA office and aren't quite sure how to do that, certainly connect with me by email and I can put you in touch with our Demand Reduction Coordinators in the field divisions, the Special Agents in Charge such as Chip.
They'll go out and do presentations at your campuses and at your communities and such about what Chip specifically said, what they're seeing on the ground level as well.
It is a very unique perspective and it's one that I know folks around the country that I have helped connect really do appreciate that.
So Chip, thank you for bringing that up.
I did have another follow-up question about this connection between law enforcement and prevention.
So I know from our conversations around this particular issue that you are doing some work with the college and university police chiefs in Indiana.
So can you tell us a little bit about what you're hoping to achieve there?
Chip: Thanks, Rich.
One of my many joys of being in this position is that I am able to connect with the college police departments, college public safety departments of the college here in the northern part of Indiana.
And my counterpart, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of our DEA Indianapolis office, he is connecting with the colleges and universities in the southern part of the state.
And here in Indiana we very much love coordinating, conversing, chatting with our colleagues in law enforcement and public safety at these colleges and universities.
And here in Indiana we've got some smaller schools, a little lesser known.
And of course we've got the big ones, right?
We have Indiana University, Purdue, University of Notre Dame.
Those are three of the big ones here in the state.
If you want to know what is happening on a college campus, get to know your college campus police chief, your college Public Safety Director.
They really do have their fingers on the pulse with regard to the ins and the outs of what's going on on campus.
And drug addiction, people who are struggling with substance abuse issues, just because you now enroll at a local college or step foot onto a local college campus does not all of a sudden make you immune to addiction.
A college is a microcosm of our world.
And what we see here in Indiana and across the country of course, drug use and abuse on college campuses is rampant.
We do see young men and women, college students who are using, abusing pharmaceuticals, right?
Adderall is highly abused.
It's needed and when prescribed by a doctor and received from a real pharmacy and used as directed, that's the intended use.
But we also see the other side of it as well.
We see pharmaceutical abuse on college campuses from Adderall to Xanax.
We certainly know, Rich, through COVID mental health and depression has been a bit hit to this country.
And college kids are not immune to that.
So to go back to it, I really love partnering with colleges and universities because these are formative years for young men and women, and we want to make sure we get our colleges and universities the information that we have here in DEA with regards to the trends in traffic and what we know about substance abuse.
And we really want to get that word out, and we've had some really good success.
We've had some really good success with getting the college newspapers to write some articles.
As you've mentioned, we've gone onto college campuses and spoken to a variety of different groups about DEA in particular and what we're seeing right now with the opioid epidemic and illicit fentanyl.
And then also getting something as simple as our DEA counterfeit pill fact sheet out to the college police departments and they put that on the podium at the roll call, or they talk about it before roll call, before their security officers and police officers go out on campus.
So we cannot forget about our colleges and universities because it's the future of America, right?
These are the young men and women who will be the future of DEA and teachers and doctors and nurses and lawyers and business and what have you.
But it also, like I said, is a microcosm of what we're seeing in the United States.
We need to make sure we continue to take good care of our colleges and universities.
Lucey: You hit on so many important points right there, one being so prescription drug misuse among college students we know is an issue.
There's so much attention typically focused on opioid misuse.
And yes, we have had an opioid crisis, misuse crisis in our country for at least the last decade.
But I continue to say in my presentations and during this podcast that among the college student population, the class of drug, prescription drug typically misused are prescription stimulants.
And it's primarily because college students are under this mistaken belief that if I pop one of these stimulants, whether it's an Adderall, a Ritalin, that I'm going to get a better grade.
And there's just no research to bear that out.
You absolutely said it correctly.
If legitimately you are prescribed a prescription stimulant for say ADHD, absolutely it helps with your concentration and with your focus.
We are talking about those students who are non-medically using these prescription stimulants because they think it's going to help them get from a "C" to a "B" or a "B" to an "A".
And as I've said on this podcast, previous interviews I've done with Dr.
Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA, Dr. Amelia Arria at the University of Maryland College Park, they've looked at this issue extensively and have also reiterated that there is no research to show that that is true if you're non-medically using, misusing I should say, a prescription stimulant.
And yet in a bit of an absolutely shameless plug for Chip and me, we are going to be actually co-presenting together for the first time at the IACLEA Conference in late June in Las Vegas.
That's the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.
And we're actually going to talk about this very next issue so it's a great segue to my next question.
First of all, we talk about students who may be misusing prescription drugs and they might not be getting those prescription drugs that they're misusing from a legitimate source.
And so as a result, they have no idea what they're putting into their system.
And this is one of our messages around this campaign.
So one of DEA's most recent high profile efforts is the One Pill Can Kill awareness campaign which is to inform the American public about the dangers of fake prescription pills.
So Chip, from your perspective can you tell us more about this campaign and how might communities including colleges and universities get involved?
Chip: Rich, thanks.
One Pill Can Kill is such a poignant; I love it.
It's a great phrase that we all can remember.
It makes sense and it doesn't hit more to the point than by saying One Pill Can Kill.
And we say that because we are specifically talking about counterfeit pharmaceutical pills, fake prescription pills which are becoming more and more increasingly and widely available.
And if that's not scary enough, the fact that pills are fake, made in a clandestine lab somewhere in Mexico, shipped over the border and landing here in our streets.
It's one thing that the pill is fake.
What's even worse is that they are increasingly lethal, injected and laced with this illicit fentanyl that we talked about earlier, right?
These chemicals that again come from Asia, primarily China, sent to Mexico, produced in counterfeit pill format to look like an Adderall, to look like a Xanax, to look like an oxycodone, to look like a Percocet, to look like an MDMA Ecstasy pill which isn't a pharmaceutical but it still is in pill format.
And back to the colleges and universities, Rich, just as our discussion, if somebody might be prescribed Adderall for ADHD or whatever and maybe they run out and they know somebody at the end of the hall who has some pills, there is a really good chance that that pill is fake, that that pill was made in this clandestine lab somewhere south of the border.
And last year in 2021 DEA seized 20 million fake, counterfeit pills.
And out of those 20 million, we estimate that 40% of, 40% of the pills out of those 20 million actually contained fentanyl, contained a lethal dose.
And a lethal dose is no more than two milligrams of illicit fentanyl.
Two milligrams is enough to fit on the tip of a pen or the tip of a number two lead pencil.
So you know, these pills are widely available.
They're out there.
They're containing fentanyl.
They are the number one driver of overdose deaths in the country right now.
Last year in America we had; and not to talk stats but it's important.
It's important to know these numbers.
Last year in the United States we had roughly 104,000 Americans die from drug overdose, which is horrible.
Out of those 104,000 roughly 68,000 of those Americans died because of illicit fentanyl.
That is a huge, that's a 65 to say 70 percent of our Americans who are dying every year from drug overdose are dying because of illicit fentanyl, which back to the college and universities finds its way into a pill.
So this One Pill Can Kill campaign is good for the general community.
They need to know.
Again get your pharmaceuticals from a real pharmacy as prescribed by a doctor.
But you also need to know that, you know, you mentioned, Rich, the opioid epidemic.
We've been dealing with this for about 10-plus years, and I remember those days early on when I was in Baltimore dealing with this and kind of seeing it come out on the streets there.
And that opioid epidemic, those were legitimate oxycodones, legitimate Percocets that somebody was purchasing from a Walgreen's or a CVS or a Target.
Today not only do we still have the legitimate pharmaceutical opioid issue, folks are still sadly still very addicted to legitimate pharmaceuticals.
Now we have these fake pills that are coming from south of the border.
And I am aware in my travels, meeting with these colleges and universities, this is something I think important to know.
This is a real story.
It's not a long story, but it's a very; it really kind of hits home, the situation.
There was a student.
I was told that there was a student who had tickets to a Division One college basketball game to this student's school.
And there was somebody who lived in this student's dorm who did not have tickets to the big game this coming weekend, whatever weekend it was.
And via social media the student who was looking to get tickets to the game offered Adderall via social media to the student that had the tickets for the game and said, hey, two Addies for one of your tickets, Addies slang for Adderall.
That's not good, right?
We obviously see the issues there.
But then we also see the issue of we have no idea if that Adderall came from the local pharmacy or was shipped over the border and made its way all the way here to the state of Indiana from some clandestine lab in Mexico.
That should speak volumes to all of us that we have young, 20-year-old men and women living in dorms of great colleges and universities who are bartering pills for college basketball tickets.
That to me says it all and that tells me, okay, we've got a problem.
And we need to continue to get this One Pill Can Kill campaign out there because people are just not thinking.
They don't know about it, and they don't know how deadly this really could be.
Lucey: Mm-hmm, so yeah, again so much to unpack in what you said.
So the one stat is pretty startling, and I'm glad you reiterated it because I was writing it down to remind myself that this four out of ten number is basically four out of ten what the labs, DEA's labs are finding is that with the pills seized, four out of ten have a lethal dose of fentanyl in them.
And what I've been saying, we have a lot of key messages within the campaign, but the one through line to every audience I speak to is what you've already said, is that, do not take medicine unless it's been through a licensed medical professional, through a trusted pharmacy.
That has got to be the takeaway message no matter who the audience is.
At the time of this recording, we're coming off of Spring Break.
We're now in the midst of March Madness.
And we already saw the news story.
We've started seeing several news stories in some clusters of overdoses throughout the country.
But one that took place during Spring Break down in Florida where six or seven different students, it turned out had taken a batch of counterfeit pills.
And I have a colleague on a campus and I'm not going to name this individual, but the way that she's characterized it unfortunately is true, is they've been educating their colleges in their region and their students as it seems as if there is just one mass casualty event away from a tragedy with something like this happening.
A group of students takes a bunch of pills and something like this happens.
And in the prevention, I'm very clear to talk about this too.
People in the prevention field will often accuse us of scare tactics, which we know do not work.
We know scare tactics do not work in prevention science.
And the way I characterize this is that this is not a scare tactic.
These are facts that are scary.
They are based in reality.
And we are simply trying to promote this issue so that people understand the gravity of the situation.
I don't view that as a scare tactic.
I just view that as just pure factual information.
Chip: Rich, I love it.
That's just a fantastic point.
That's a fantastic point to hit home there.
And I think, I think with regard to illicit fentanyl, it's also important to picture and to remember and for our community listeners here to know that a lot of drugs, certainly in Mexico and even here when they're packaged up locally and regionally, these are not scientists.
These are not regulated folks.
You could be packaging up heroin or counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl on the same table that you're packaging up cocaine or that you're packaging up marijuana or that you've packaging up methamphetamines.
So even if the cartels or the local or regional drug trafficking organizations don't intend to inject and lace cocaine or whatever type of drug with this illicit fentanyl, the fact is they're bringing and combining all these drugs together in one place.
And just by the nature of science being science, there's a really good chance that that fentanyl could be comingled with a drug that maybe the drug trafficker did not intend for it to be.
Then as a result you have somebody ingesting cocaine laced with fentanyl, whether meant or not meant to be, and you have somebody overdosing on fentanyl through the use of cocaine.
And we see this with marijuana and every other drug out there.
This is not just fake pills and fentanyl.
This is not just meth or heroin with fentanyl.
There's a real danger every time you ingest something into your body you're going to get more than that lethal two milligram dose and you're going to overdose, and there's a strong chance you're going to die.
Lucey: And for our listeners, let me say that since we launched One Pill Can Kill last fall and have been getting the word out to a variety of our audiences including colleges and universities, several campuses have started to now promote and advance our messaging around this.
And we've started to highlight those efforts on campusdrugprevention.gov.
And there's an opportunity there for you on campus to tell us about your efforts specifically about promoting this message too.
So please if you're on a campus and you are promoting the One Pill Can Kill messaging, and some schools have gone by way of Instagram and other social media efforts and such to get the word out, let us know about it because we'd love to highlight those efforts on the website.
But also a side note for our listeners, in case you happen to hear construction in the background, because we can certainly hear it in the studio, it's because they are doing some construction here at DEA headquarters.
And so hopefully it'll be quick and not too painful.
If you are hearing it, we do apologize for that.
So we're just going to continue to barrel through with the rest of the interview with two more questions.
And actually this is another great segue talking about pills that may be lying around the house, around the residence halls, in the locker or what have you.
Chip, another of DEA's efforts is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.
And in fact this past October close to 745,000 pounds of unused, expired and unneeded medications were collected across the country.
How can colleges and universities get involved in the next Take Back Day this April, which I should note for everyone is April 30 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. local time?
And you can find out more information at takebackday.com.
But Chip, what are your thoughts on Take Back Day and how can we get colleges and universities involved?
Chip: Yeah, Take Back Day has been going on for what, Rich, like 10-plus years with DEA.
It's been absolutely a homerun.
It's just been a fantastic way to get these expired, unused, maybe even partially used pharmaceuticals off the streets, out of folks' bathroom cabinets, and get it to DEA where we can properly dispose of these pharmaceuticals and get them off the streets and out of people's hands because we know that really it's a very easy.
It's very easy if somebody has some sort of addictive substance in their bathroom cabinet and it's very easily accessible.
And we just want to again make the communities safer and healthier by removing them.
But colleges and universities, yeah, Rich, at least here in Indiana where I live and where I work I can say that we've had many universities here in the state, in the northern district and down in the southern district participate on and off throughout the years.
And that's kind of one of our messages, that when I go out and my counterpart in Indianapolis when he goes out, we push One Pill Can Kill and we push Take Back.
Here in the northern district I know Notre Dame, Purdue University and Indiana University, Northwest have all set up Take Back Days for college students.
And also what we've found is that they tend to be, at least here in Indiana, Rich, they tend to be more successful in the spring than in the fall.
And we can just say that's probably a matter of it's a year's worth of stuff being collected in the dorms, right?
Our Take Back Day in usually late September, early October, it's still very early on in the academic year.
But by this point, April, we'll see our numbers with colleges and universities go up.
And again back to it, we want all these pharmaceuticals that are unused, expired, not being used, if you don't need them, get rid of them.
Let DEA, your friends at DEA take them and get rid of them in the proper way.
And it's just again another way to get that prevention message out there to the community and to the colleges and universities as well.
So it serves, it serves two fronts, right, to get the message out and to actually get these pharmaceuticals out of the dorms.
Lucey: And give a shout out to a couple of organizations we've collaborated with over the last several years.
Again I've already mentioned IACLEA but also NASPA, which are the student affairs administrators in higher education.
And with DEA we are encouraging colleges and universities to participate in Take Back Day.
If not at the collection site which does require you to have at least one police authority on campus or connected with you in a community because they have to be onsite to collect what's being dropped off, but if you can't serve as a collection site, working with your local community and their collection sites.
You have a lot of educational materials that you can hand out.
I know that that's a great thing to do at a collection site is to not just collect what's being dropped off but also use it as an education jumping off point if you will.
It's an ideal time if you will to hand out the fact sheet about One Pill Can Kill and the counterfeit pills and such, all of which can be downloaded at no charge from dea.gov/onepill or also again from the campus site which is campusdrugprevention.gov.
So Chip, I'm going to end with the fifth formal question.
It's the question I typically ask all of our guests and that's, what would you say to encourage the professionals who are working to prevent drug use and misuse among college students as well as the students themselves who might be listening to the podcast?
Chip: Well, nobody is on an island and that's one of the mantras that I take with me when I go out and meet with folks and colleges and prevention folks.
You're not on an island.
Know that DEA, your law enforcement community but I work for DEA so I can speak for DEA on this.
We are happy and willing and we want to partner with you on your prevention efforts, get you that information regarding trends and traffic so we can hopefully be, like I said earlier, maybe that Paul Revere for you on campus.
Here's what we see coming down the pike.
Here's where you need to kind of start to prepare to be resilient against this.
So to the prevention specialists, we're here to partner, hand in glove approach.
A natural connection does exist.
And we love partnering with you, prevention partners.
With regard to college students, just be very aware, right?
This is not a scare tactic.
But the reality of it is counterfeit pharmaceuticals in particular are alive and well in the general community, are alive and well on colleges and campuses and universities.
And just be aware and just please take care of yourself.
Take care of your mental health.
And if you're struggling and you need help, we all know there are plenty resources on college campuses and university campuses to help.
And DEA is partnering with them and DEA wants to make sure everybody has successful years in college and successful careers and lives ahead.
So you're not on an island.
That's my mantra.
We're here to work and help with you.
Lucey: Thank you, Chip.
It's great advice.
And as I know people who have collaborated with DEA and connections that we've helped to make have truly benefitted from it and are really appreciative of the work that we're doing and are glad to make those connections.
So Chip, again thank you so much for being on the podcast episode.
I appreciate your perspectives from both law enforcement perspective and prevention perspective.
And I look forward to seeing you actually in person in just about three months.
It's been a little over two years since you and I have been in the same room together so looking forward to co-presenting with you on this very, some of these issues that we've talked about at the IACLEA Conference in late June.
So Chip, thank you very much again for being on the episode.
Chip: Thanks, Rich.
Thanks to Congressional Public Affairs headquarters for this opportunity.
And I look forward to seeing you as well, my friend.
And to our listeners, we appreciate you and thanks for tuning in to not only this episode but all of the episodes of Prevention Profiles Take Five.
With that I'll say thanks for listening and have a great day.