SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — The Drug Enforcement Administration has issued a public safety notice, warning Americans about a sharp increase in fake prescription pills containing fentanyl. This is the first DEA PSA in six years, and it seeks to raise public awareness about these pills.
The PSA notes that so far this year, more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills have been seized by the agency; that is more than the total from 2019 and 2020 combined.
According to the DEA’s Omaha Division, which oversees five states including South Dakota, DEA joint investigations culminated in the confiscation of around 1,200 pills in 2020. In 2021, that number has skyrocketed, with the DEA seizing around 5,000 pills between January and August.
According to the DEA, counterfeit pills are illegally manufactured by criminal drug networks and are made to look like real prescription opioid medications such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, Xanax and Adderall. These pills are then often sold online and via social media.
To get a deeper look at the reality of these counterfeit products, KELOLAND News spoke with Steve Bell, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s Omaha Division.
“Last year alone, we had over 90,000 people die due to overdose,” said Bell. “A large portion of that is due to people getting counterfeit controlled substances such as Oxycodone, Percocet — ordering online — we’re finding those substances contain a lethal amount of fentanyl.”
Bell says a lethal dose of fentanyl is as little as 2mg.
“We’re really talking about a few grains of salt,” he said. “Not a very [large] amount of pure fentanyl will kill a person.”
When it comes to the counterfeit pills containing fentanyl that the DEA has seized, Bell says roughly 40% of them contain a potentially lethal dose.
“When you look at the trend of 1,200 pills last year [in South Dakota] and we’re not even through this year yet — that’s a pretty significant increase,” Bell said.
Though roughly 40% of the fentanyl-laced pills contain a potentially lethal dose, Bell doesn’t think death is the drug-makers’ intended result.
“Obviously I do not believe the drug trafficking organizations are trying to kill their costumers. What I think they’re trying to do is to use a more potent opiate in their chemical process, such as fentanyl — trying to get people addicted where they’re requiring more product,” Bell said.
There is a lot of money in the drug trade, and it can be a huge motivator.
“Drug dealing is all about money,” said Bell. “The organizations capitalize on that and the reason why so many people are overdosing and dying is because they’re getting the manufacturing process wrong.”
Bell says that when dealing with such small amounts of pure fentanyl, the ability to accurately mix it together with the other ingredients to make drugs is not perfect.
“It is very easy to get it wrong and you come across what we would term as a ‘hot batch’ where one pill might have 4 mg of fentanyl and another one might have zero. It’s just, the rude production that these organizations use — they’re more concerned with pumping out mass quantities [than they are] with quality control, so to speak.”
Another major problem with counterfeit drugs is that fentanyl isn’t just going into knock-off opiates.
“These organizations are also putting fentanyl in other controlled substances such as methamphetamine; cocaine. There isn’t really a drug that we haven’t seen a fentanyl increase in,” said Bell. “These organizations will go to all ends of the earth trying to get our population hooked.”
While meth has and continues to be a major issue within South Dakota, fentanyl presents a unique danger.
“In terms of South Dakota, meth is the primary drug threat,” said Bell “but the important thing you have to understand about fentanyl is we’re talking grains of sand — if there’s three or four grains of sand worth of fentanyl, it will kill you.”
One of the main reasons the demand for and use of fentanyl has risen so much is the high demand. The cause of this demand is simple; fentanyl is cheap.
“It’s super cheap,” said Bell. “A drug trafficking organization can get a kilo of fentanyl from China, mix it in with however many pounds of cutting agent, press it into a pill and sell it.”
On the other side of the equation, Bell says sellers are then able to buy a product providing a strong and addictive high for very little out-of-pocket cost.
Looking at the victims of these counterfeit prescription drugs, Bell says that in addition to typical drug users looking to get high, another category are people who have been written a prescription, and looking for a cheaper option online.
“They’re ordering what they think is a legitimate painkiller, albeit it is illegal to do that, but they’re able to do it and they have absolutely no idea what is in that tablet,” Bell said.
This depiction of a unsuspecting victim is backed up by Math Walz, a representative for Keystone Treatment Center, an addiction treatment and recovery center located in South Dakota.
“What we see with patients with opioid-use disorders is that almost all of them started their opioid journey with a prescription for opioid medication from their doctor — a legitimate prescription for pain, and then what can happen is that that can morph into a full-blown opioid addiction,” Walz said.
Despite their battles with addiction, Walz says it is important not to demonize these people.
“The people I’ve met with opioid use disorders are very good people, but they’re sick people. They’re not bad people that need to somehow become good, but they are sick people who can and often do become well,” Walz said.
Part of that path to becoming well is taking the steps to seek out help. Walz recommends searching out local resources.
“If you or a loved one or a friend is having a substance-use disorder, there’s lots of resources,” he said. “Local resources are best. Consult your local professionals in your community. There’s lots of resources available. Some may cost money, some may be covered by insurance or by the state, and many are free.”
When it comes to the dangers of opioids, Walz says the effects are visible in the community.
“We are seeing a large increase in South Dakota and in our region of people taking opioids and then having an accidental overdose,” he said. “Illicit manufacturers are putting doses of fentanyl in these drugs, and then people are taking them and having an adverse impact which sometimes results in death.”
The risks of these adverse effects are what Bell and the DEA hope to make clear.
“Whether you have the best of intentions or the worst of intentions, the consequences are the same. You truly are playing Russian Roulette. You have no idea what you’re purchasing and what we’re seeing in today’s pill seizures is that 40% of the 9.5 million pills that we have seized throughout the U.S. this year alone contain a lethal amount of fentanyl. People need to be educated,” Bell said.
Bell says that the only way to be sure of what you’re getting in terms of medications is to go through legitimate sources such as doctors and pharmaceutical services.
For those battling opioid addiction, though the path is hard, Walz takes a hopeful outlook.
I’ve always said that people with addictions are people with great faith. People like to fight with me on that, and they’ll say no, I don’t have faith, and I’ll say well, you have faith in the drug dealer. That whatever they’re selling you will get you from here to there. Did you do a lab test on what they sold you — no, you had faith that it would get you there, but yet sometimes people come into recovery and they say well I don’t know if I can have faith in this program — well you had faith in the drug dealer and whatever they were selling you. Why is it so hard in recovery.Matt Walz
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-4357, or you can reach out to local resources such as Keystone in your area.