Counterfeit pills lead police to issue fentanyl warning

Police seized these pills in October 2018. They appear to be 30 milligram tablets of oxycodone. Police sent the pills to the lab for testing and the testing indicated the presence of fentanyl. RIGHT: A picture of real oxycodone taken from WebMD.

 

Parsons police are warning opioid addicts to beware of medications they purchase from dealers.

The warning came after police learned that 31 pills seized in a drug investigation in October 2018 were counterfeited pills. The light blue pills were stamped with markings similar to a 30 milligram dose of oxycodone, an opioid pain killer. Testing by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation lab revealed that the pill or pills tested contained fentanyl, which is at least 50 times more potent than morphine.

“Fentanyl, in that big a dose, is going to kill you,” said Parsons Police Chief Robert Spinks in a prepared statement.

The pills, methamphetamine, marijuana and guns were found in a Parsons motel room on Oct. 31, 2018. Police related that motel room to an Iola man who allegedly led police on a long, circular chase that ended near 18th and Morgan. The sport utility vehicle’s driver, Cornel A. Owens, born in 1977, escaped on foot. He’s wanted for distribution of drugs, criminal possession of a firearm and fleeing and eluding police. Police found meth, marijuana, cash, a fentanyl patch and a gun in the SUV. The investigation led police to the motel room occupied by Victor A. Lindberg, 38, of Mesa, Arizona. A charge of possession of oxycodone, for the 31 pills found in the room, was dismissed in a plea. Lindberg is on probation for possession of meth.

Lab backlogs delay timely drug testing in Kansas. At times, the tests aren’t completed before a criminal case goes before a judge for a preliminary hearing, so law officers use drug testing kits at the scene to tentatively identify drugs. This probable cause hearing, which determines if a defendant will be tried on felony charges, can take months to happen because of scheduling and other issues.

Parsons police reported the findings of the lab report this week, about three months after Lindberg was sentenced.

The Parsons discovery isn’t a first for law enforcement in the U.S., though Police Sgt. Jason Ludwig said he hasn’t seen counterfeit pills in Parsons before.

“This is a whole new ball of wax,” Ludwig said.

U.S. law enforcement began seeing and seizing counterfeit pills containing fentanyl in 2014 in the U.S., according to a 2016 report on counterfeit prescription pills from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The counterfeit pills often resemble the pills they mimic, and the presence of fentanyl is only detected in laboratory tests. 

Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl are smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico and Canada, the DEA report said. Pill press operations also occur in the U.S.: Traffickers purchase powdered fentanyl and pill presses from China to supply the illicit U.S. drug market. The equipment gets through customs because it is often disassembled and mislabeled to throw off investigators, the DEA report said.

The DEA seized three counterfeit pill presses in Los Angeles in March 2016 that used fentanyl and other synthetic opiates. Two months earlier in New Jersey, the DEA arrested a counterfeit pill producer after making undercover purchases of about 6,000 pills. These pills were made to look like 30 mg. oxycodone but contained fentanyl, the DEA report said.

The counterfeit pills feed a demand.

A national survey on drug use and health estimated that 4.3 million Americans were nonmedical users of pain relievers in 2014.

“High demand for authentic prescription drugs strongly incentivizes traffickers to produce counterfeit pills containing fentanyls to increase their revenues and meet market demand for these products,” the DEA report said. “The rise of counterfeit pills that contain fentanyls in the illicit drug market will likely result in more opioid-dependent individuals, overdoses and deaths.”

Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl may sell for $10 to $20 each in the U.S., the DEA reported. A kilogram of fentanyl used to manufacture counterfeit pills could generate between $5 and $20 million in retail sales, depending on the purity of the fentanyl and the dosage. 

The drug use comes at a cost, though.

In the U.S., 63,632 people died from drug overdoses in 2016 and 42,249 of these deaths involved opioids. Millions more people experience substance use disorders.

In Kansas, more than 1,500 Kansans have died from opioid or heroin overdoses since 2012. In 2016, drug poisoning was an underlying cause of death for more than 300 people in Kansas with nearly a third of these poisonings attributed to methamphetamine, according to reports generated by task forces studying opioid addiction in Kansas.

Spinks said first responders are at risk when responding to overdoses and drug houses. Police use fentanyl resistant gloves and double bag evidence as precautions, Ludwig said.

The chief is warning drug users that no one should buy oxycodone or other opioid painkillers except from a pharmacist.

“If you illegally bought some oxys, just because you have a habit, get rid of them,” said Spinks. “It’s not a hoax. Put it in our receptacle; we don’t track who comes in there.”

The Parsons Police Department has a pill drop box at the station, 217 N. Central.

Spinks said this is a public safety issue.

“You’re gonna reach into the pill bottle and it’s going to be your last time,” Spinks said. “The risk is death. The choice is yours.”

Opioid overdoses can be treated with naloxone, also called Narcan, a medication that Parsons police are working to make available to patrol officers.

The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department received a grant through Four County Mental Health to provide a Narcan unit to each patrol officer and investigator about a year ago. Cherokee County ambulance personnel trained officers in the use of Narcan and officers have since undergone a refresher, Cherokee County Sheriff David Groves said.

The Labette County Sheriff’s Department is preparing to initiate a similar program with its deputies.

Randy Grimmett, director of the Labette Health Ambulance Service, said advanced life support ambulance services like the one in Labette County have had Narcan available for years.

Narcan reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. It blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and helps restore breathing. 

Grimmett said a patient can go into respiratory depression and be unable to maintain an airway. That’s when Narcan can help if the overdose is from an opioid. The amount of Narcan needed to keep the patient breathing depends on the volume of the drug consumed.

Once Narcan is administered, the patient comes around in seconds. It’s like a light switch, Grimmett said.

He was shocked at the counterfeit pill discovery. Fentanyl is normally dosed in micrograms, not milligrams.

Grimmett said if someone bought one of those pills and expected 30 mg of oxycodone, the result could be deadly depending on the amount of fentanyl in the pill.

Two milligrams equals 2,000 micrograms. With fentanyl, a moderate risk of death starts at 50 micrograms and death is likely at 700 micrograms, according to Harm Reduction Ohio, a non-profit that works to reduce harm associated with drug use and drug policy.

Spinks said addicts using counterfeit pills could “have disastrous consequences.”

“Just want people to be aware,” Ludwig said.

Melissa Underwood, a spokeswoman for the KBI, said the agency's labs are seeing more counterfeit tablets submitted for analysis.

"Our forensic scientists report that those producing the counterfeit tablets are often very sophisticated and able to create tablets that look authentic.  Sometimes, the counterfeit tablets contain the compound indicated by the imprint but also contain traces of additional compounds to suggest they are counterfeit, and other times they contain completely different compounds," Underwood said.

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