A sweeping bill to attack the opioid crisis is headed to the president's desk, giving law enforcement new weapons to block the flow of drugs that were responsible for some 72,000 overdose deaths last year. But drug dealers are not likely to stand still, with a long history of shifting their business models to feed Americans' voracious demand for the drugs.
Among their tools are synthetic substitutes like fentanyl — which is 50 times more addictive than heroin — as well as dangerous new fentanyl derivatives that are just starting to show up in the U.S. market. The new legislation targets the synthetics as well as heroin and prescription painkillers, but there is little doubt that dealers will try to change their strategies yet again in response.
"Drug dealers are always making adjustments," Bridget Brennan, New York special narcotics prosecutor, said in an interview with CNBC's "American Greed."
"Whenever they perceive that law enforcement is closing in in one way, they move another way."
Brennan, a 20-year veteran of her post, oversees drug cases for the district attorney's offices in each of the city's five boroughs. Among her team's key tactics is targeting the profits of increasingly sophisticated drug rings.
"What we're really looking to do, our number one priority, is to take the poison off the street," she said. Disrupting dealers' corporate structures is part of that effort.
As illicit and devastating as the drug trade might be, it is, after all, a business. And drug dealers, like any business people, are adept at adapting to changing market conditions.
Take teenage aspiring drug lord Lance Barabas, who ran an interstate drug ring along with his older brothers Larry and Landon, their friend Douglas Dodd, and others, distributing nearly 150,000 oxycodone pills in a two-year period.
"They were on the verge of making millions," journalist Guy Lawson told "American Greed."
Lawson first profiled the crew in a 2015 article for Rolling Stone.
"They were making tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were making, to kids, infinite amounts of money," Lawson said.
The boys spend the money much the way one might expect college kids to spend it — lots of parties, fancy cars, booze, and more drugs. But they managed to pay for it all by using some savvy — if sometimes rudimentary — business practices.
The boys found a ready supply of the drugs in their home state of Florida.
"Florida was ground zero of the prescription pain pill epidemic," Dodd told "American Greed." "They were very abundant down here."
"There was no other state like this. In Florida, there was more pain management clinics than there was McDonald's," Landon Barabas recalled.
As college wrestlers, scoring pills was as simple as faking an injury.
"It was like a golden ticket," Barabas recalled. "I went back to my doctor's … and walked out of there with like 500 pills."
The boys knew all of that supply in Florida would tend to depress the price, so they began shipping the drugs to Tennessee, where Landon was attending college. There, the drugs could bring four to five times the price the boys paid for them in Florida. To avoid detection, they would send the drugs to Tennessee in "care packages" disguised as vitamins. The profits came back to Florida in cash, stuffed into teddy bears.