A rise in the number of counterfeit prescription pills containing lethal amounts of fentanyl has led the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to issue and alert. While no such pills have been found in Westerly to date, police are urging residents to be alert to the dangers of the fentanyl-based product.
The DEA on Monday issued a warning nationally regarding the dangerous counterfeit pills, which the agency said has been tied to a rise in American overdose deaths.
Based on a sampling of tablets seized nationwide between January and March 2019, DEA found that 27 percent contained potentially lethal doses of fentanyl. A lethal dose of fentanyl is estimated to be about two milligrams, but can vary based on an individual’s body size, tolerance, amount of previous usage and other factors, the DEA said.
“Capitalizing on the opioid epidemic and prescription drug abuse in the United States, drug trafficking organizations are now sending counterfeit pills made with fentanyl in bulk to the United States for distribution,” said Uttam Dhillon, acting DEA administrator. “Counterfeit pills that contain fentanyl and fentanyl-laced heroin are responsible for thousands of opioid-related deaths in the United States each year.”
According to the DEA, Mexican drug cartels are manufacturing mass quantities of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid that is lethal in minute doses, for distribution throughout North America. Pills have been found from California to Maine, officials confirmed.
Fentanyl and other highly potent synthetic opioids remain the primary driver behind the ongoing opioid crisis, with fentanyl involved in more deaths than any other illicit drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said local officers have not reported finding any such pills, but said there have been numerous cases where an individual was carrying some form of fentanyl, usually a powder, and in some cases the individual was not aware that it contained the drug.
"We had a case a few weeks back where a 65-year-old man had overdosed and showed all the signs commonly associated with a fentanyl overdose," Lacey said. "It can be difficult because in a case like that, we were told he took pills but there were no pills for officers to recover and no other way to verify."
Police aren't just concerned about residents ingesting the substance either — they are concerned the dangers of officer exposure.
In the past few years, agencies such as Hopkinton and Charlestown had done away with field testing drugs due to concerns over the presence of fentanyl. Instead, trained officers conduct any testing in a secure, supervised testing station at headquarters or send the substance to the state Department of Health if the need to test is not urgent.
"The directive put a stop to the practice of field testing suspected 'powders and pills' in order to put officer and all personnel safety first," said Charlestown Police Chief Paliotta in an interview earlier this year. "The added risk posed by exposure to these powerful opiates such as fentanyl, carfentanil and other opiate derivatives is significant and requires special attention by law enforcement personnel. These powerful drugs, often 100 to 1,000 times more powerful than morphine, are showing up more often."
After the recent round of overdoses and the latest warnings regarding fentanyl exposure, Lacey said Westerly has done the same.
The agency had allowed for officers to continue field testing longer than smaller departments in surrounding area towns, but Lacey said the concerns over risk now greatly outweigh the rewards of having officers test the substances on the street. The department will now use the same policies found effective in neighboring communities and either test suspected substances at a ventilated hood system processing station at Westerly Police Headquarters, or simply send it to the state lab when an immediate result is not necessary.
Lacey, along with DEA officials, are warning area residents that when it comes to buying pills and other items off the street, taking a risk could lead to death.
“Buying drugs from street dealers is deadly, especially when fentanyl is disguised as a real pharmaceutical,” said Brian D. Boyle, special agent in charge for the DEA in Boston. “The DEA and our local, state and federal law enforcement partners stand committed to taking deadly fentanyl off the streets of New England and ensuring those who manufacture and traffic these lethal pills are held accountable to the communities and families they damage with this poison.”