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SALT LAKE CITY — The Drug Enforcement Administration issued a rare public safety alert this week — the agency's first in six years — warning about an "alarming" increase in fake prescription meds laced with fentanyl that is causing a spike in overdoses nationwide.
The DEA safety alert "seeks to raise public awareness of a significant nationwide surge in counterfeit pills that are mass-produced by criminal drug networks in labs, deceptively marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and are killing unsuspecting Americans at an unprecedented rate."
The agency says the pills have been seized by agents in every state "in unprecedented quantities."
Jay Tinkler, head of the DEA in Utah, said the Beehive State is not immune to the fentanyl problem.
"There is more here than people realize," he said.
Tinkler said there has been a steady increase of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl coming into Utah over the past 18 months. And it isn't just fake Oxycontin. He said other pills being counterfeited are having fentanyl added to them such as Xanax and Adderall.
The reason, he said, is a "marketing ploy" to get more people hooked on fentanyl, which is a more addictive drug than heroin.
Most of the pills are being produced in Mexico, which receives the precursor drugs from China, and are being transported into Utah through Arizona or California, according to both state and federal authorities.
Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Brent Shelby, who oversees the department's K-9 interdiction team, said troopers who patrol southern Utah — particularly along I-15 and I-70 — are catching most of the counterfeit pill shipments.
"Our guys are getting it northbound headed to Salt Lake City," he said.
One of the UHP's largest seizures came earlier this year in southern Utah when approximately 60,000 fake oxycodone pills destined for Denver were seized during a traffic stop, Shelby said.
"My guys are getting it about every other load," he said of troopers who find counterfeit pills during drug busts.
But there are loads that troopers don't catch, which make their way to local drug dealers across the state. Last year, about one out of every four pills sold on the street had fentanyl in them, Tinkler said. This year, about 40% of all street level pills are laced with the deadly drug.
Police in several jurisdictions across the state have investigated overdoses this year that are believed to have been caused by fentanyl.
In Washington County, the county's Drug Task Force is investigating the death of a man in August who was found to have pills with "M30" stamped on them, which stands for 30mg of a controlled substance.
"I know there has been an increase in the distribution of fraudulent blue M30 pills within Washington County. Members of the Washington County Drug Task Force have come across several of the blue M30 pills during recent investigations. Several of these pills have been sent to the Utah State Crime lab for analysis. All of those pills sent to the crime lab have returned with results showing they contained fentanyl," the investigating officer wrote in a search warrant affidavit.
In Kane County, an Arizona man was arrested in July and accused of distributing large amounts of drugs in southern Utah, including fentanyl.
Another Arizona man was arrested in Grand County in January after police found what was believed to be fake oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl.
"We are definitely seeing a fentanyl increase, just like everybody else," said Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke.
Other jurisdictions say it's not just pills that are being laced with fentanyl, but other dangerous drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.
In Tooele County, Sgt. Jeremy Hansen with the Tooele County Major Crimes Task Force, said there had been four or five overdoses over the past six months due to heroin laced with fentanyl. He said a "bad batch" of heroin was being distributed in the county and is believed to be responsible for the spike in deaths. Two men were charged with manslaughter earlier this year with selling fentanyl-laced heroin to a woman who overdosed.
But whether it's illegal drugs or fake prescription meds, the problem is just a small dose of fentanyl can be fatal to a person who is not suspecting it. According to the DEA: "A deadly dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil."
"It's super dangerous. People think they're getting something way less powerful," Shelby said of those who think they're buying regular prescription meds off the street. "A very, very, very small amount (of fentanyl) will kill the average human."
"One time it might be Oxycontins and the next time it might be a fatal dose," added Tinkler.
"We've got to get people aware of the risk," Clarke said. "It's deadly."
Tinkler said that's why the DEA announced its "One Pill Can Kill" awareness campaign on Monday to coincide with the public safety alert. He said fentanyl is not a new problem in Utah, but between the increased shipping from western and southwestern states and the ability to buy pills over the darknet, it's become a big issue.
"Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before. In fact, DEA lab analyses reveal that two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose," Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a prepared statement.
Tinkler said there are field test strips available for people who want to test their unregulated drugs to determine if they are getting fentanyl or not. But most drug users won't take the extra step needed to acquire such a strip or use it.
"But that could save a life," he said, adding that access to naloxone can also help should someone overdose.