Fighting the scourge of illicit fentanyl
Public health and law enforcement officials have issued a stern warning that there is a scourge wreaking havoc in Yamhill County: fentanyl.
Over the past year there has been a steep increase in overdoses related to pills and substances laced with the powerful opioid.
"The risk has now been enhanced," Dr. Bill Koenig, the county's public health officer, said in a prepared statement.
County Sheriff Tim Svenson concurred with Koenig's assessment.
"The current fentanyl epidemic is unlike any opioid challenge we have faced," Svenson said. "It is important to understand that a fatal dose of fentanyl can be placed into any illicit substance and is routinely being found in phony prescription pills such as counterfeit oxycodone."
Oftentimes, Svenson said, people who believe they are purchasing oxycontin or Xanax via social media sites are unaware that the substances they are buying are either laced with or wholly containing fentanyl.
"Several deaths have occurred in Yamhill County at the hands of these counterfeit pills," he said. "I can't stress enough that you should never take a prescription pain reliever that does not come from your doctor or a licensed pharmacy. The result of taking a pill with an unknown origin can be fatal."
Typically, the counterfeit pills — called "blues" for their common color or "M30s" for the markings on the sides — are so well made that even experienced users are unable to tell the difference from a fake pill and one produced by a pharmaceutical company.
"Fakes are often meant to appear like the common pharmaceutical-grade painkiller oxycodone," the release said. "These counterfeit pills are increasingly testing positive for fentanyl and are common disguised as other drugs and medications. The (Drug Enforcement Agency) DEA has found fentanyl in opioids and medications for anxiety and ADHD. Medications like oxycodone, Percocet, Adderall and Xanax are just some of the common medications that when counterfeited often contain fentanyl. The deception can be deadly if someone believes they are taking a harmless pill."
Even worse, teens are buying pills online for anxiety and depression, unaware that what shows up on their doorsteps can be fentanyl, the release said.
Legal uses of fentanyl
The drug was first developed as a pain management treatment for cancer patients, applied via a patch on the skin. Eventually, doctors began prescribing it as a painkiller and its use broadened to include emergency responders such as EMTs responding to accidents with serious injuries.
Proper dosages for the drug under normal circumstances are minute, as fentanyl can cause a person to stop breathing.
"Counterfeit pills are especially dangerous because the amount of fentanyl varies from pill to pill, even in the same batch," the release said. "Just two milligrams of fentanyl, the weight of a mosquito, in a pill could mean death."
Compounding the problem is that the drug is being distributed illegally on the streets, often mixed with other drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, cocaine, cannabis or anti-depressants such as benzodiazepine.
A nationwide problem
The DEA began seeing a surge a few years ago in counterfeit, fentanyl-laced opioid pills. Then things escalated quickly.
"(By) 2020, the federal agency deemed illicit fentanyl primarily responsible for the nation's ongoing opioid crisis," the release said.
Typically fabricated outside the country, laboratories synthesize fentanyl into counterfeit oxycodone pills. The demand for the pills has risen as the government has begun imposing tighter restrictions on the legal prescription of opioids in response to epidemic of deaths related to the drug in the nation.
In Yamhill County, 2020 figures indicate 12 people died when overdosing on illicit drugs, seven that involved fentanyl.
"This is a drastic increase in fentanyl seen in the toxicology results," the release said.
In the 12 months ending in May 2020, more than 81,000 people overdosed in the United States, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Law enforcement agencies in the area seized tens of thousands of M30 oxycodone pills in 2020 alone.
Fighting the scourge
Officials say the best way to prevent overdoses from illegal fentanyl is to avoid pills obtained from friends, on the street or via Internet websites that don't require a prescription.
In addition, people who choose to use opioids, whether via prescription or not, should carry multiple doses of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone (trade name Narcan), Koenig said. Naloxone counteracts the effects of opioids and can reverse an overdose. It is commonly carried by first responders, but state law allows anyone to administer the drug to someone overdosing without being prosecuted.
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