A tiny amount of fentanyl can kill an adult male by stopping breathing. Dealers are increasingly mixing cheap and potent fentanyl into illicit drugs and counterfeit pills. [Drug Enforcement Administration photo]
Dealers putting fentanyl in illicit drugs, counterfeit pills
Nearly half of the heroin used in Oregon contains potentially deadly fentanyl, and the state could be heading for a 100% contamination rate.
National company Millennium, which conducts drug testing in all 50 states, is sounding the alarm that more and more drug tests are coming back positive for fentanyl mixed with heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine.
“There has never been a more dangerous time to use any of these things in this country than right now,” said Eric Dawson, vice president of clinical affairs for Millennium.
States in the eastern half of the United States already have co-positivity rates for fentanyl in heroin ranging from 81% to 100%. The trend is spreading westward, according to data from 2019 to 2021.
Together, the West Coast states of Oregon, California and Washington had a co-positivity rate of fentanyl for heroin in 2021, according to data from Millennium.
Heroin mixed with fentanyl makes up 100% of the heroin supply in some states and is becoming more prevalent on the West Coast, urine and saliva drug tests show. Millennium Chart
Oregon had a co-positivity rate of 48.7% for heroin, 24.4% for methamphetamine, and 21.6% for cocaine in 2021. This is up from 11.4% for heroin, 5.6% for methamphetamine and 7.3% for cocaine in 2019.
The growing prevalence of fentanyl is contributing to a record number of overdose deaths locally and nationally.
Overdoses killed 91 people in Jackson County and an estimated 106,854 people in the United States in 2021, according to statistics from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s extremely scary. The overdose rates are not surprising knowing what I know about the potency of fentanyl,” said Dawson, a pharmacist by training.
Fentanyl made by drug companies is used in very low doses for severe cancer pain, he said.
It can also be used in a surgical setting, where the patient is closely monitored by medical experts. If fentanyl suppresses breathing, doctors can administer an antidote or use a ventilator, Dawson said.
“You have someone on a ventilator and you are breathing for them. We don’t have that in the neighborhood if someone overdoses,” he said.
International drug trafficking organizations primarily buy chemicals from China and other countries, manufacture fentanyl in illegal labs in Mexico, and sell their product in the United States, Dawson said.
Making fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is much easier than growing opium poppy and turning the pod sap into heroin.
And while some customers will inevitably die, fentanyl brings huge profits.
More and more drug dealers are using fentanyl to make counterfeit pills that mimic prescribed pills for pain, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions. The dealers even stamp their fake pills with an imitation pharmaceutical company mark.
Counterfeit pills made by drug trafficking organizations that contain fentanyl are almost indistinguishable from pills made by pharmaceutical companies. Photo by the Drug Enforcement Administration
They can invest $35,000 in a kilogram of fentanyl and a pill-making machine, and then produce a million pills that sell for $20 to $80 per pill on the street, Dawson said.
That $35,000 can turn into profits of $20 million or more, he said.
“When people ask me if fentanyl is going to leave our communities anytime soon, I say, ‘Not with this level of profitability.’ You can turn $35,000 into $20 million. It’s incredibly profitable,” Dawson said.
Drug trafficking organizations can make more money from fentanyl than from heroin.
A kilogram of heroin costs about $5,000 and translates to about $80,000 in revenue, Dawson said.
He said fentanyl pills can reach a wider audience. Everyone knows how to take a pill, even if they don’t know how to use heroin or methamphetamine.
“Counterfeit tablets are a game changer,” Dawson said.
People who would never knowingly take heroin or methamphetamine are more likely to buy a pill on the street and swallow it, thinking it’s a prescription painkiller. Or they might accept a pill from a friend.
“I have two daughters. I make it clear to them that they can only take what comes from a doctor. You can’t take a pill from someone else, not even your best friend in the world” , Dawson said.
When people buy pills on the street, they sometimes try to reduce the danger by cutting the pills in half or quarters. But the pills made by illegal labs do not have an even drug distribution. A quarter tablet could contain a lethal amount of fentanyl, said Kelly Olson, clinical affairs representative for Mellennium.
The growing danger of fentanyl-containing pills prompted the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to launch a “One Pill Can Kill” public safety campaign.
Olson said fentanyl has spread so quickly that most members of the public are unaware of the danger.
Mellennium offers drug testing to patients seen by physicians, therapists and addiction treatment providers for a variety of physical and mental health care – ranging from prenatal care to chronic pain management to the treatment of substance use disorders.
Some tests are done to check if patients are taking their prescription medications as recommended or if they are using illicit drugs.
When drug test results come back, some patients who test positive for fentanyl have no idea how they used the potentially deadly drug, Olson said.
“They were just as surprised as their counselor or clinician,” she said.
Dawson and Olson have safety tips and recommendations for the public.
Never experiment with illegal drugs, take pills unless prescribed, and warn family and friends of the danger.
If you have a substance use disorder, seek help.
“There’s never been a more important time to get treatment,” Olson said.
Anyone at risk of exposure to fentanyl or other opioids, including prescription painkillers, should have an overdose antidote kit on hand, according to the US Surgeon General.
The Rogue Valley-based organization Max’s Mission provides free opioid overdose antidote kits as well as fentanyl test strips. Visit www.maxsmission.org for more information on distribution events, collection locations, local drug treatment providers, or to request the antidote by mail.
Call 911 immediately if someone seems to be overdosing, even if you have administered an overdose antidote. The person can relapse into an overdose and die.
Contact Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or [email protected].com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.