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Addiction has taken a very public toll on West Virginia. Recent CDC statistics show a decrease in overdose deaths, but authorities face an uphill challenge in stemming the flow of fentanyl into the state.
From its original intended use as a narcotic for severe pain in cancer patients, the controlled substance fentanyl is being exploited at an alarming rate. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram says mass overdose events – characterized as three or more overdoses within a close range of time at the same location – have increased.
One hundred times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, just two milligrams of fentanyl can lead to death when used with alcohol, or illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine.
Illicit synthetic opioids and their precursors are produced in countries like China and Mexico before they making their way into the U.S. In lab tests, 42-percent of pills tested in DEA labs contained at least 2 mg of fentanyl.
During his visit to West Virginia in August, White House Director of National Drug Control Policy, Dr. Rahul Gupta, said one American loses their life to drugs every five minutes.
“Not only do we see fentanyl, meth, heroin and cocaine,” Gupta said. “It’s possible now to create any number of concoctions if you have a creative chemist sitting in a lab.”
Fentanyl’s use has become so widespread that the CDC issued an advisory on its Health Alert Network (HAN) warning public health departments, first responders and others about an increase in overdose deaths and the need for bystanders to have access to the lifesaving medication naloxone (Narcan). The medicine reverses an overdose by blocking the effects of opiates on the brain and restoring breathing. Stronger opioids like fentanyl can take more than one dose.
J.T. Scroggs is the Special Agent in Charge of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration’s Louisville Field Division. In his role, he oversees all of West Virginia. He said narcotics and fake pills are more readily available than ever.
“It’s not a situation we can easily arrest our way out of,” Scroggs said. “We rely heavily on team work with local and state leaders, our partners in law enforcement, we have great relationships with a lot of the police departments around here, Charleston, Huntington, the Sheriffs’ Department.”
Drug traffickers use fentanyl to drive addiction by mixing it with other illicit drugs. Through seizures and drug tracking data, the (The) DEA is seeing fentanyl in street drugs, as well as in the new surge of counterfeit prescription pills. The chemical hits the market under the guise of prescribed medications like adderall, xanax and oxycodone. Scroggs said most overdose victims are unaware they’ve ingested fentanyl until it’s too late.
“The fake pills are coming out to look like and resemble the other ones,” Scroggs said. “So most of the time when people purchase pills even though it’s illegal and it’s illicit they don’t think they’re buying fentanyl, they’re not intentionally buying fentanyl.”
Scroggs said the majority of counterfeit pills resemble 30 mg oxycodone pills (M-30s), but can closely mimic other drugs and prescription medications.
He explained that Mexican cartels are producing meth and fentanyl in record amounts, flooding the U.S. market. Drug trafficking organizations are now targeting kids and teens with rainbow fentanyl – counterfeit pills in a variety of shapes and bright colors.
“They think they’re buying something else,” Scroggs said. “The problem with the pills are, like we said – 2 mg of fentanyl can be fatal. If they survive, the high and the rush is so great that they will go back again.”
For the profit driven trafficker, deaths from overdose are simply the cost of doing business. The money to be made is the driving force behind newer mixes of drugs hitting the market.
“They could care less if you get addicted or you don’t get addicted, or if you survive or you don’t survive, they’re preying on vulnerable people,” Scroggs said.
Fentanyl is cheaper to make than heroin. The high end price for a kilogram of fentanyl a few years ago was around $5,000.
Today Scroggs says a kilogram of fentanyl can be turned into 500 thousand pills with a profit of $1.5 million. In comparison a kilogram of heroin is worth around $65,000.
The drugs typically reach the West Virginia market through smaller independent operations and local distributors.
“West Virginia would be classified as an end user state from the point that typically we’re not supplying to other organizations or areas,” Scroggs said. “A lot of what we see in West Virginia is coming from out of state.”
Metropolitan areas like Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and Baltimore are considered major drug corridors to the state.
The DEA identifies distributors and traffickers through tips and informants. The organization uses other investigative methods but has recently reassessed its approach as drug cartels become savvier. Investigations at the federal level target the source of the supply to dismantle drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. The agency works with the U.S. Attorney General’s office as well as federal, state and local authorities and prosecutors.
With the advent of social media and increased use of the internet, Scroggs said drug dealers have a captured audience, particularly the younger generation who can readily access illicit drugs on their phones.
The DEA’s ‘One Pill Can Kill’ campaign in partnership with the substance misuse prevention program GameChanger is making a difference.
GameChanger Founder Joseph Boczek said educating kids, teachers, and parents about the risks and deadly consequences of ordering illicit and counterfeit drugs online is key.
“Our youth who are heavy users of social media and the internet have even developed a lingo of how to track where drugs are,” Boczek said. “And the bad guys, the drug dealers, although they’re still on street corners, they’re also in a corporate office building filling orders for illegal drugs.”
With the drug trade now a high tech business Boczek said the kids are taught that only prescribed medication that is dispensed by a registered pharmacist, is safe.
“The bottom line is they are using this to buy Adderall on the internet, which is laced with fentanyl, so they’re playing Russian roulette because they cannot tell when they get this stuff whether it’s fentanyl, or not,” Boczek said.
With DEA efforts to stop fentanyl at the federal, state and local levels, curbing the illicit drug and its precursor chemicals crossing U.S. borders relies on cooperation at all levels.
In August a U.S. congressional report criticized poor cooperation from Chinese authorities to curb increasingly sophisticated forms of fentanyl and its precursors from being shipped to the US.
With tensions between the two countries at a high it remains to be seen if that cooperation will improve.