BOSTON – The state is getting more federal dollars to target fentanyl trafficking in the region as the number of opioid-related overdoses continues to increase.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said it has received a $3.8 million federal grant for the New England Fentanyl Strike Force to expand efforts to combat the opioid crisis and dismantle drug trafficking networks throughout the region.

Healey said the strike force “has done significant work disrupting and dismantling illicit trafficking operations and taking heroin and fentanyl off of our streets.”

“We are grateful to receive this federal grant to enhance collaboration among law enforcement in combating this growing crisis,” she said in a statement.

The money was provided through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services Anti-Heroin Task Force program. Funding for the regional strike force through the program has grown every year from an initial $1 million grant in 2016, when it was launched.

Since its launch, the strike force has seized more than 400 kilograms of heroin and fentanyl, nearly 50,000 opioid pills, 125 firearms, and millions of dollars in cash, according to the AG’s office.

Investigations have resulted in the arrest of more than 530 suspects mostly for trafficking heroin and fentanyl and opioid pills.

Federal, state and local law enforcement have made several high-profile busts in the Merrimack Valley region over the past two years, many of which have involved fentanyl.

In 2018, dozens of people were arrested on federal drug, weapons and immigration charges after authorities broke up fentanyl-dealing operations in Lawrence, seizing more than 10 kilos of the synthetic opioid — enough to kill half of the state, officials said. The raids led to the arrest of at least 50 people, many of whom were living in the country illegally, according to authorities.

Task force partners include the Massachusetts State Police, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Homeland Security Investigations, the United States Postal Service, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, and other law enforcement.

Col. Christopher Mason, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police, said the funding “will improve multi-jurisdictional efforts to snare traffickers, stem the drug violence “and reduce supply of the drugs to those who battle addiction.”

“The task force model of combating narcotics trafficking, and the street violence and fatal overdoses that it brings with it, has proven successful time and again,” he said.

There were 1,613 confirmed or suspected opioid-related deaths through September, according to the state Department of Public Health. That’s 1% higher than the same nine-month period last year, but still below a peak of opioid-related deaths in 2016.

A majority of the deaths were among males, and Hispanic and Black people were disproportionately impacted, with higher rates of deaths than whites.

There were 2,104 confirmed and suspected opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts in 2020 — a 5% rise over the previous year, according to state health data.

Fentanyl was involved in more than 60% of the overdose deaths last year, CDC data shows.

Public health officials have attributed the uptick to a combination of social isolation, gaps in available services during the pandemic and even fears among some people that seeking treatment would expose them to COVID-19.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are considering a number of proposals aimed at expanding treatment options for people struggling with opioid addiction, as well as toughening state laws to crack down on fentanyl and heroin traffickers.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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