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Ship-to-shore: Illegal opioids often come from overseas

(WKMG) -- The calm setting of Port Canaveral's sun-drenched landscape has become the backdrop for opioids and other illegal drugs.

They're tucked away in cruise ship passenger bags, hidden in belt buckles and eventually, Brevard County Sheriff's Office evidence bags.

"They're developing these pills to look more like candy," said Corporal Gerry Shealy, of the BCSO K-9 Unit.

The drugs, intercepted by K-9 deputies earlier this year are custom designed, marked and color-coded, essentially dealer trademarks, all far more potent than they appear.

"This is LSD on a paper blotter," Shealy said.

The LSD is actually stamped with pictures of McDonald's hamburger characters. Other confiscated drugs include opioids, fentanyl, ecstasy, and MDMA that looks a lot like Pepto Bismal, but typically is a blend of heroin, LSD and cocaine.

"Same drug, but they're name-brand, their brand," Shealy said.

Deputies said those brands were confiscated in January from passengers ready to board a party cruise dubbed 'Holy Ship.' Video posted on the company's Facebook site shows the theme "Respect the Ship." Still, passengers tested the system and lost.

In January, BCSO, led by Sheriff Wayne Ivey, brought in trained K-9 dogs to the port, introducing another level of security to intercept illegal drugs at the cruise ship departure point. On average, 6,000 passengers will board with two bags each; any of them could have opioids inside.

In a demonstration for WKMG-TV, a trained dog shows off his drug detection skills. Black tar heroin was planted in one of the bags for this test. In less than 20 seconds, the K-9 named Jake finds the drugs. Deputies said for the dog, it's just a game.

"When we come in here, it's playtime. They know when they find, they get their ball," Deputy Scott Stewart said. "And you saw how quickly the dog was able to find this, and on top of that it's well-hidden."

That brings us back to Port Security and the potential ship-to-shore drug trail. WKMG-TV was given rare access to Port Canaveral's passenger baggage drop off as well as the port's electronic surveillance center, where each screen monitors key points on the perimeter. As bags are rolled in for delivery to the ship, a K-9 team executes a random check of passengers' baggage.

Brevard County K-9 deputies said they could spend a full day there, looking at baggage row by row and not get a single hit, but WKMG-TV was there less than five minutes and they got one.

It took seconds for Jake to pick up a drug scent. He indicates that by sitting down in front of the bag. Deputies pulled the two carriers apart to make sure it was not a false reaction. But they got the same result -- K-9 Jake has picked up on something not once, but twice in the same location. When they checked the second carrier, the dog walked around and away and back to the other bags he initially indicated.

Now the bag becomes part of an instant investigation.

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Deputies said this illustrates how important these K-9 teams are.

"In this big pile of bags, you would never know which bag to pull. You know, he's telling us, 'OK, there's something here,'" Stewart said.

"So in theory, somebody tried to slip something through?" Investigator Mike Holfeld asked.

"Could be, yeah, that's what the dog is telling us," Stewart said.

"Does this happen a lot, people try to slip through?" Holfeld asked.

"It's a hit or miss. You never know," Stewart said.

In this case, deputies said the drugs ended up being a legal prescription drug, but it does go to show how quickly the dogs can find drugs.

Deputies said the hope is that word is out -- here is zero tolerance for opioids or any drugs in Port Canaveral.

This article is courtesy of WKMG-TV.