Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Cheri Oz (Drug Enforcement Administration)



Audio file

Cheri Oz, Special Agent in Charge of DEA's Phoenix Field Division, is our guest for this podcast episode. During the interview, Cheri discusses the nation's biggest drug threat (fentanyl), her division's community-based prevention efforts through Operation Engage, and sends an important message to college students.

Rich Lucey: Hi, I'm Rich Lucey in the Drug Enforcement Administration's Community  Outreach and Prevention Support Section,  and welcome to this episode of Prevention Profiles Take Five. 

I'm very excited about today's guest.

Let me announce it, Cheri Oz, and Cheri is the Special Agent  in Charge of DEA's Phoenix Field Division. 

Let me tell you a little bit about Cheri and then we'll get started with our interview. 

Cheri Oz was named Special Agent in Charge of DEA's Phoenix Field Division in December 2019. 

She began her law enforcement career in 1996 with the Phoenix Police Department  where she worked as a patrol officer and a field training officer  prior to her promotion to detective. 

In 2002 Cheri began her career with DEA starting in DEA's Los Angeles Field Division  for nine years followed by working in DEA's Miami Field Division. 

In 2017 she was awarded Walmart's Women in Federal Law Enforcement Leadership Award which honors an individual who has led the way to developing an effective strategy and partnerships. 

From 2017 through early 2019 she worked at DEA headquarters first in the Office of Operations Management followed by management in DEA's Human Resources Division where she oversaw DEA's Special Agent recruitment and hiring program. 

In April 2019 she transferred to DEA's Seattle Field Division assuming the role of  Assistant Special Agent in Charge until her promotion to Special Agent in Charge of DEA's Phoenix Field Division. 

She has a bachelor's degree in criminology and law studies with a double minor in psychology and sociology from Marquette University. 

She has a master's degree in education and leadership from Northern Arizona University. 

And with that, Cheryl, welcome to the podcast. 

Cheri Oz: Thank you, Rich, for having me. 

Lucey: This is exciting for me because I have to tell you, you are the first Special Agent in Charge that we have had as a guest on the podcast, which has entered its fourth season this past January. 

So real excited to have one of the field division's Special Agent in Charge as a guest, so especially exciting for me. 

So let's get right into the first question. 

So the Phoenix Field Division serves the entire state of Arizona,  but more importantly it covers about 370 miles of border with Mexico. 

So my first question is actually a two-parter in this first question. 

What are the drug threats that are facing communities in Arizona and actually throughout the greater United States? 

Oz: Our biggest drug threat currently is the opioid problem. 

It's an epidemic. 

And by extension all synthetics really are becoming a bigger issue throughout the United States. 

We have Mexican cartels that are manufacturing in these super labs super drugs that they're crossing into the United States. 

In years past historic drug enforcement, it was something we could measure. 

Cocaine fields, opium fields, marijuana fields. 

We had an idea of how much yield, how much crop any particular area could state. 

With these super labs and synthetics we have no idea how much is possible. 

The amounts are unquantifiable. 

So we have huge shipments of drugs coming into the United States and it is affecting every single neighborhood here in the U.S. 

It's in your neighborhood right now, I promise you. 

Lucey: Wow, so I've been in the prevention field for quite a while and I know that the southwest border has always been an area of concern. 

So obviously California all the way over to Texas, and certainly Arizona is affected by that. 

So if I heard you correctly, do we know then? 

My follow-up question is going to be, do we have any sense of the amount or percentage of drugs that are actually coming in from Mexican cartels? 

Oz: We know that 90% of the drugs that are in the United States right now are making their way into the southwest border. 

We know that we're the most obvious with just the gold piece to getting drugs, especially from cartels, into the United States. 

The amount of drugs that are coming in, it's hard to say definitively how much there is. 

I can tell you my guys here in Phoenix or in the Arizona Field Division last year seized over six million fentanyl pills. 

That is enough to dose every single person in Maricopa County. 

That's an obscene number of pills. 

And to put that into context, five years ago we seized zero fentanyl pills, zero. 

This epidemic has gone from zero to six million in just five very short years. 

And that's just what we seized. 

We know that fentanyl during the COVID portion and the border restrictions, the price of fentanyl did not rise, which is alarming to me because as a mother and a Special Agent, somebody who lives here, because the price didn't go up the supply was still steady in spite of all that we seized. 

We had some intelligence early on with border restrictions that we were seizing approximately 60% of the loads, and that was a number that we were wrapping our heads around and comfortable with in trying to get to the 80% range. 

But right now it's hard to tell. 

We don't have a good answer. 

Lucey: I'm astounded by that figure of zero to six million. 

And like you said, that's just in what was seized. 

So that's sort of like when you do surveys of drug use, there's often the under reported, right? 

So we only know what's been reported. 

So this is true. This is just the seized amount. 

That's not like what's actually out there. 

Oz: Right. And you know we would've had to have missed, try as we might. 

My guys are working around the clock as our Border Patrol and CBP. 

Everybody has a vested interest in stopping and slowing the supply. 

Lucey: So we hear about obviously the opioid issue. 

Fentanyl has really gotten a lot of highlight in the news and the media, rightly so. 

How powerful are these drugs that are coming in? 

Oz: So that's kind of a two-part question for me because how powerful are the cartels? 

And let's talk about that for just a second because cartels are driving the train here on trafficking. 

And Mexico is a violent, violent country. 

Over 35,000 people were killed last year on narcotics trafficking by cartels. 

And that's just what we know about. 

So if you think about the amount of violence within that country, all because they're addicted really to our money and they're trying to get their supply into the United States. 

So when you talk about the power of the drug, the power of the cartel I think and the violence and the evil piece, the cartels care not about us at all, at all. 

So that I think bears mention. 

And then fentanyl itself is in pills which makes it feel safer to someone who is going to take a pill. 

We're a society of taking pills from the time we're kids. 

We take them for headaches and for fevers, and those are good pills. 

There's a difference between a licit and an illicit pill. 

The size of two or three grains of salt is what it takes to be a dose and could be a lethal dose inside of a pill. 

We know that one in four pills that come into the United States contains a lethal dose of fentanyl. 

So five milligrams is enough to kill you and I. 

Two milligrams would be enough to kill many people. 

Lucey: Wow. Well, I'm going to switch gears to an effort that's happening actually in Arizona. 

One of DEA's most recent high profile efforts is called Operation Engage. 

And it's a comprehensive prevention initiative that targets the top drug threat that has been identified to the local DEA division while also continuing to focus on drug trafficking, violence and crime reduction. 

Now we were not able to launch Operation Engage in all of our field divisions this year like we had hoped, but it is being implemented in Arizona. 

So tell us about your plans for Operation Engage in the state, and how might communities including colleges and universities get involved. 

Oz: I am so glad you asked me about Operation Engage because I'm so excited to roll that out to the state of Arizona. 

This is a great initiative where DEA is getting on the front side of drug use and misuse, abuse and misuse. 

We are looking at outreach, education and prevention as a focal point and starting to really add that into who we are as an enforcement agency, which is a little uncomfortable for us because it's not really what we do best. 

But here we are branching out. 

We chose here in Arizona, Yavapai County, as our target location for this program. 

Yavapai County has a great infrastructure of local law enforcement, sheriffs, community leaders and prevention specialists that are already in the game. 

Just recently we lost a 14-year-old girl who took one pill one time and did not survive the encounter. 

So it's important that we're in those communities. 

So Operation Engage is this big event where we throw out a lot of education. 

We really target kids, school age kids, high school kids, college kids, and it's truth telling towards prevention. 

Education is the simplest way we can help our community. 

So we're partnering with community leaders. 

We partner with again all the coalitions that are out there trying to get the word out. 

We have really fun programs for the kids. 

We have a dance program that they love. 

We have pizza parties. We do a lot of media. 

We bring a lot of attention to the truth about fentanyl and the dangers of taking an illicit pill. 

Lucey: I love what you said. 

We're getting in on the front side of the issue because prevention and education is so important. 

And we also know that in prevention, relationship building is a huge component of prevention. 

So did DEA already have an established working relationship with Yavapai County or did it take some time to build that relationship for this? 

Oz: That's a great question. 

So we do have a relationship with them, but it's not as strong because we don't have as many DEA contingents up in Yavapai County. 

But we saw a need and we saw an area that we could really focus and put our resources some place that would impact and matter. 

So we're building all those relationships. 

We hired an outreach coordinator who is established in the community and comes with a lot of those relationships. 

So we're welcome into some of these circles. 

And the community at large realizes we're there to help. 

We're not trying to solve their problems. 

We're not trying to arrest our way out of the problem up there. 

We're trying to put resources into places we think matter. 

Study after study show that parents talking to their children is an impact piece. 

Kids still care what their parents think about them. 

I'm a mom so I talk to my kids all the time about drugs because I want them to be educated. 

I want them to be aware. 

My daughter is 7 years old and can spell fentanyl. 

I don't know if that's good or bad. 

It won't be a spelling word, I'm sure. 

But she's ready for it if it is. 

Because for me it's very important that they are armed with the knowledge to make good choices, to get out into the world and to succeed, also to share that with their friends. 

Spreading the word in their education, it's exponential, right? 

We're building a network. 

Every person that we can educate becomes a piece of our prevention team, and we make our own coalitions and that spreads. 

Good begets good. 

We just keep, we keep spreading the word. 

So for us this is unusual. 

It's different. 

We've had Operation 360 which was our former piece that was outreach and education, hugely successful. 

This is kind of a branch off and an upgrade I guess from that former piece of education outreach. 

Lucey: I know that every time I do a presentation I always; you touched on it. 

The whole issue of education is there are going to be people that may not have been in the room, either in person or virtually, who heard my presentation. 

But the people that were are going to spread that word. 

And so it's funny the way you said that you're educating your daughter on these various things. 

She in turn is likely educating her friends at times. 

So there is that diffusion of education which is great because that's how we, like you said, that's how we spread the word. 

So I'm glad to hear you say that. 

You touched on this and it is a nice segue to my third question for you. 

So DEA's primary mission is to enforce the nation's federal drug laws. 

And yet prevention is an important component of supporting that mission. 

Based on your experience as a Special Agent, how do you see law enforcement and prevention working together? 

Oz: So for context, 31.9 million Americans used illicit drugs last month. 

And if that gives you an idea of what kind of problem we have, we know. 

DEA knows we cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem. 

We cannot solve this issue and change the culture by putting people in jail. 

It's bigger. And do people need to go to jail? 

Absolutely they do. 

And DEA is very good at finding high value targets and targeting them and taking them to justice. 

But it's bigger than that. 

Fentanyl is in your community right now. 

Almost everyone knows someone who has been touched by this epidemic. 

And that's the bigger issue. 

So we go to basic economics, supply and demand. 

And really DEA goes after suppliers for sure. 

But the demand piece is something that we need to get a control over. 

And if we can be part of the solution and part of that conversation on the front side and work on that demand, we could put DEA out of business. 

I would love to be bored. 

I will tell you if everyone said no to drugs, I don't know what I would do. 

Maybe I'd start golfing or find a hobby, something. 

But right now we don't have time for that because we're so focused on saving American lives. 

The prevention piece helps us get to where we need to go because the long-term goal is to have a society where people are safe and healthy and protected and there are no predators preying on people who abuse and misuse illicit substances. 

So prevention to us, education gives everyone the tools and the key to be the change, to be part of the solution. Say no. 

And there is no, there is no demand, and then the supply goes someplace else. 

Lucey: I said I've been in this field now 30 years this year, and when I talk to; well, now in my role at DEA talking to Special Agents, outside of DEA  talking to law enforcement personnel, so many times I hear individuals say they don't want to. 

They don't want to be locking people up. 

The common goal here is to put us out of business, like you said. 

I mean that's really what we're striving for. 

Unfortunately don't see that happening anytime soon, but it really does come down to the demand issue and that's what we're trying to prevent. 

That's the name of the game for us. 

So I'm glad that you brought that up. 

I want to ask you about a couple of substances. 

We've already touched on one of them, but maybe you can expand on it a little bit from a law enforcement perspective. 

DEA has identified fentanyl and counterfeit pills as two major national concerns. 

So for our listeners who work primarily on and around college campuses, what information? 

What are the primary messages about these two substances that you want to convey to them, fentanyl and counterfeit pills? 

Oz: So my college kids, I hope you're listening and I hope you hear what I'm about to say. 

You are being targeted. 

You are a long-term customer. 

If a cartel can get you addicted to what they're selling, until you take a lethal dose, you're all in. 

And the price per pill goes up and up and up because you are giving up your career, your future, your life, your children. 

Whatever is intended for you, you throw all that away to make a different choice, a bad choice. 

So fentanyl is in everything. 

It's a highly addictive substance, both physically and psychologically. 

So cartels, it's a business proposition. 

They are putting the most addictive substance they can into every substance they sell. 

So college kids, it's a culture issue. 

We're buying pills that we think are Adderall, college kids. 

They're not Adderall. 

They have fentanyl in those pills, and those pills are highly likely to have a lethal dose. 

What you are buying illicitly, regardless of what it looks like, might or probably will contain fentanyl. 

Methamphetamine, we're finding fentanyl in methamphetamine. 

We're finding fentanyl in Adderall pills. 

We're finding it in Xanax pills. Counterfeit pills. 

We're finding it in the counterfeit, the counterfeit oxy pills that we are most familiar with. 

Fentanyl is a powder. It can be pressed into anything. 

It's in marijuana now. 

So the idea for the cartels is to have a long-term customer. 

As long as you survive, putting fentanyl in it is brilliant because you're addicted to that substance without even knowing that you have created an issue for yourself because you're taking something that you believe is something else. 

Any pill that you buy illicitly most likely contains fentanyl at this point in the United States. 

Lucey: Wow. 

I know that my colleagues around the country in the prevention field have been promoting the message for the last at least five to seven years, this issue. You just mentioned it with fentanyl being in so many different substances now. 

Not only the college students but generally in society you have no idea what you're putting in your body. 

You might think you do. 

You might think you're taking a Xanax or an Adderall or like you even said, just using cannabis or smoking a joint or whatever, it's even in marijuana now. 

You have no idea what you're actually putting in your body. 

Oz: It's true. 

And it's so terrifying to think how many lives are affected by one wrong choice, one wrong pill. 

Lucey: Yeah, and I know that the One Pill Can Kill campaign is something that's going to roll out soon. 

I know that that is something that is a significant message of ours because as you just said, it just takes one. 

And we've unfortunately heard about the ultimate consequence, the death of someone. 

And most times we hear it because of a celebrity. 

Unfortunately a celebrity dies. 

But there are countless, countless non-celebrities that this is affecting that we don't see in the headlines. 

But you just said a 14-year-old girl, I think you said, was at the top of the episode that took a pill that had fentanyl in it. 

And most often it will have a lethal dose in it, which is terrifying. 

As we start to wrap up with the interview, I didn't have this on the list of questions to ask you, but in your role as a Special Agent in Charge, I wanted to ask you. 

What keeps you up at night? 

Oz: My kids, my dogs. 

But what keeps me up is I am terrified that I won't do enough. 

I am always looking for a solution, trying to find a strategy because it terrifies me that someday somebody will give my child a pill and they will, and I'll have to plan their funeral or your kid's funeral or your neighbor kid's funeral. 

It is this mission, this DEA, this is something that we do because we're called to do. 

This is so much more than a career. 

And I really believe in our mission. 

And this piece, this prevention piece is, I worry that I'll stop for a second and not say something or not take an opportunity to educate someone, and that will be the one that I could've saved. 

And I'm driven to spread this message because it's so important. 

We feed into this horrible poison. 

And making better choices, changing the culture is; drugs are not cool. 

And to repeat that message over and over again. 

I wish I knew the right words to touch every single person so they really understood it's not worth it. 

Don't make your mom plan your funeral. 

As a college kid, make good choices. 

Decide on a career. 

Focus, a goal today and a goal tomorrow. 

Those are the things that keep me up. 

Lucey: Yeah, wow. I mean I can hear. So in prevention you talk about a calling. 

We say that about prevention as well because no one, no one ever goes into the prevention field, typically no one goes into the prevention field saying that's going to be their career. 

Usually there's a very long and winding road where they end up in prevention. 

But it does come down to having a passion. 

And I can hear that in your voice. 

I mean I can hear the passion that you have for not only DEA's mission but like you said as a mom, as a neighbor, as a family member you have that passion there. 

And I'm going to steal a sound bite I just heard. 

It's about losing opportunities. 

We don't ever want to lose the opportunity to promote prevention. 

And I've been saying it over the past, unfortunately since the middle of March 2020 with the pandemic there's been a lot of focus taken off of prevention, and now is not the time. 

Now is not the time to take our eyes off the ball when it comes to prevention. 

So I'm stealing that little note about let's not lose the opportunity. 

So thank you for that. 

So I'm going to end as I do with all of my guests with this last question. 

What would you say to encourage the professionals who are working to prevent drug use among college students in particular as well as the students themselves who are listening to this podcast? 

Oz: Keep going. Keep going. Don't, don't stop. 

And you will get frustrated. 

You will get disappointed. 

There will be ups and downs in your quest. 

You have to stay the course and keep going. 

And I of everybody understand what a disappointment can do. 

You have to rise above each disappointment and keep going. 

You never know the life that you're going to touch. 

And the hardest thing I think in the prevention world is we don't know what we don't know, right? 

So how many people choose to make a good choice because of something you said? 

We don't have those numbers definitively. 

Nobody comes back and says, well, I was gonna fill in the blank, but I thought about what you said. 

And I shouldn't say nobody because there are probably people who actually do, and I can imagine it's a rewarding thing. 

But you have to know that you're called to do that, that you are the truth tellers of society. 

You are the people who are actually giving people the education and the opportunity to make the right choices and the power because education really is power. 

Knowing the truth helps us to as humans makes good choices. 

Nobody reads what's on the package label. 

Otherwise we probably wouldn't eat half the stuff we do, right? 

But if we educate ourselves, we make better choices and we go to fruits and vegetables, though they aren't as tasty as Snickers bars. 

Lucey: Right, and now I want a candy bar. 

But I love that notion of just keep going. 

One of the keys to prevention is you've got to be in it for the long; you've got to take the long view. 

This is a long-term game. 

Things don't happen overnight. 

You mentioned something in your response about; I picked up on results.

In prevention we're often put under a microscope about being able to prove what we do works. 

And it's sometimes hard with the tangibles, but I've tried to reframe this in some ways to say every day that we don't have a sexual assault, every day that we don't have a student death, 

or every day we don't have a student dropping out of school or failing a grade or getting into a fight, that's a win. 

And that's prevention. 

That's the; you may not see it, but you do kind of see it. 

When it doesn't happen, that's us doing our work. 

Oz: Absolutely, and anecdotally I can tell you I've gone to speak at high schools where high schools have had three children lost in a week. 

Devastating for the high school. 

And parents have come up to me and said, where are you guys? 

How come you're not here? 

How come you're not talking about prevention and education? 

And they tell me when they were in school they saw whatever campaign. 

Faces of Meth. 

Say No to Drugs. 

Whatever we've done over the years. 

And it worked for them. 

But these are parents and they're telling us this 15 years later, 20 years later that that was something that worked.

We didn't get that immediate gratification, immediate feedback when we were spinning that campaign. 

We're just finding out two decades later that that was something that worked for them. 

So we cannot give up. 

However works for you, whatever your method of prevention and education is, we have to find. 

We have to keep trying to find the right thing that works. 

This is a quest that is worth staying on course. 

Lucey: That is a great message to end on. 

We have to find the quest that just continues to stay its course. 

Just absolutely love that. 

Cheryl, thank you so much. 

This has been exactly what I'd hoped it would be. 

You've just got fantastic insights in your role as a Special Agent in Charge. 

And as I said, you said, as a mom, I hear it in your voice again  the passion that you have for the work that you do, for the work that countless others around the country are doing in prevention. 

I just really, really appreciate the time you've given us. 

Oz: Of course, Rich. Thank you for having me on. 

I love to spread the word. 

Lucey: Thank you so much. 

And for our listeners, I hope that you enjoyed this episode of Prevention Profiles: Take Five. 

And with that I'm going to say thanks for listening and have a great day.