A Hoonah man faces criminal charges after police seized more than 9,000 synthetic opioid pills from packages that he was allegedly receiving and shipping across Alaska and the United States.
Nickolas Paul Cakmis, 39, was charged Wednesday with one count of misconduct involving a controlled substance in the third degree. The charge carries a maximum five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $50,000.
Over the course of two months, investigators seized packages containing the synthetic opioid tramadol that Cakmis was allegedly sending and receiving at the Hoonah post office. Tramadol is a synthetic opioid used for pain management.
Cakmis moved to Hoonah, a Southeast Alaska town of around 750 people, in October, charging documents say. Online public records show a Kotzebue post office box as Cakmis' mailing address.
On Dec. 13, the U.S. postmaster inspector got word that Cakmis was "mailing a large number of pills in Priority Mail parcels," charging documents say. Eight packages containing around 2,500 tramadol pills were opened and seized.
Then, on Dec. 14, a package from India came in for Cakmis at the Hoonah post office. Another 2,000 tramadol pills were seized. A second international package addressed to Cakmis was seized on Dec. 20, with 2,000 pills.
Despite his incoming packages being seized, Cakmis continued to ship tramadol pills across the U.S., charging documents say.
On Jan. 28, the postal inspector spoke with the Hoonah postmaster.
The postmaster said "Cakmis has been coming into the Hoonah post office approximately every two weeks to mail multiple parcels using fictitious return addresses and never uses his name," court documents say.
On Jan. 30, law enforcement intercepted seven packages that Cakmis shipped with fake return addresses in Juneau. Another 1,880 pills were seized.
On Feb. 13, officers spoke to Cakmis at his Hoonah job. He admitted to getting overseas shipments of tramadol, which he would reship "throughout Alaska" and the U.S., according to charging documents.
His overseas source would text him or message him on the WhatsApp smartphone app and tell Cakmis where to ship the drug.
"He started to reship tramadol in early October 2017 when he moved to Hoonah," the court documents say.
Tramadol is used for pain management in both humans and animals. Veterinarians prescribe the drug for dogs and cats. It's described as a small, white, bitter-tasting pill.
The drug is a much weaker opioid than fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid responsible for at least 22 overdose deaths in the first five months of 2017, said Jay Butler, chief medical officer for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
While tramadol does "have some abuse potential," it is generally less addictive than drugs like oxycodone or morphine, Butler said.
But tramadol overdoses are "very challenging," Butler said, due to some effects of the drug — like seizures and heart arrhythmia — not seen in other opioids.
"Patients who have a tramadol overdose are seriously ill and often take days of intensive medical support to be able to recover," Butler said.
Butler said he has heard public testimony that tramadol is diverted and abused in rural areas of Alaska more often than urban parts of the state.
"I think it's filling the market niche in areas where the price of heroin is very high," Butler said.
Tramadol has been listed as a federal controlled substance since 2014.
In November, Alaska legislators passed a bill adding tramadol to the state's controlled substance list, which gave law enforcement the ability to prosecute cases on the state level.
Cakmis and his attorney could not immediately be reached Thursday. His next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 24.
Tramadol has been in Alaska news this year after Iditarod officials said dogs on four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey's team tested positive for tramadol.
On Wednesday, Seavey's attorney held a press conference during which he said that an investigation had proven that the musher did not drug his sled dogs during the 2017 race to Nome.