CCSO arrested three people allegedly connected to counterfeit opioid sales

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Investigators searched a house in Rainier and found cash, firearms, records of drug transaction, fentanyl test strips and 17.2 grams of heroin.A series of recent drug arrests has highlighted a widespread increase in drug overdoses and deaths.

Columbia County sheriff's deputies made three arrests in the past month stemming from an investigation into counterfeit oxycodone pills.

In March, after allegedly overdosing three times in just over a month, a man told CCSO deputies that "something is wrong with the pills and that he wanted to help me stop (the dealer) from selling anymore pills because someone is going to end up dying," CCSO Sgt. Bill Haas wrote in an affidavit.

Chief Deputy Ryan Murphy tested the two pills the man still had in his possession, Haas wrote. One tested positive for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is often mixed in with other substances without the drug user's knowledge and has contributed to rising drug overdose deaths in recent years.

The second pill tested positive for two other drugs, cocaine and diphenylprolinol.

Deputies arrested Krista Warren, a 28-year-old Clatskanie woman, on March 28 and charged her with two counts of delivery of a schedule II controlled substance.

Two weeks later, deputies executed a search warrant in Rainier and located heroin, firearms and records of drug transactions. Deputies arrested 39-year-old Tyler Powers of Rainier and 37-year-old Brittany Schnelle, also of Rainier. Both were charged with drug possession and sale charges. Power also faces charges for possessing firearms despite previously being convicted of a felony.

Counterfeit oxycodone pills have been tied to two recent deaths in the county, a CCSO press release stated. Sheriff Brian Pixley said the deaths were tied to the counterfeit pills but not necessarily to any of the recent arrests.

"We are still conducting follow up investigations to determine who supplied the pills in the cases of the fatal overdoses," Pixley wrote in an email to the Spotlight. "We suspect there are additional overdose deaths connected to these pills as well."

Less than a week after speaking with Haas, the man who reported that there was "something wrong with the pills" was found deceased in his car outside Rainier, likely from an overdose, the Sheriff's Office said.

So far this year, there have been 29 overdoses in Columbia County reported to law enforcement, Pixley told the Spotlight.

At the same time last year, there were 25 overdoses reported.

With more than two months remaining in the current fiscal year, which runs July 1 to June 30, local law enforcement have already received as many overdose reports as they received in the previous year.

Court records show that the man who provided deputies with information about the counterfeit drugs had been administered Narcan from first responders in at least two recent overdoses. Narcan is a brand of nasal spray that delivers naloxone, a medication which can reverse opioid overdoses.

In Oregon, anyone can obtain naloxone from a pharmacist without a prescription. Pharmacies in St. Helens and Scappoose carry naloxone, according to a map from the Oregon Health Authority, but no pharmacies in north Columbia County are listed.

Deputies and police officers throughout the county started carrying Narcan in recent years.

Oregon law protects people from being prosecuted for drug possession after calling for medical assistance for a person who is overdosing.

Opioid overdose death data lags behind, but OHA data shows that deaths increased drastically from 2019 to 2020. From January to October 2019, there were 231 unintentional opioid overdose deaths statewide. For the same period in 2020, there were 379 deaths.

Columbia County's drug overdose death rate is consistently worse than the statewide average. From 2014 to 2018, Columbia County had 68 overdose deaths, equal to almost 27 deaths per 100,000 residents per year, while the state as a whole averaged 13 deaths per 100,000 residents per year.

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