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Jackson County, DEA warn of deadly counterfeit pills

The pill on the left is an authentic oxycodone pill, and the pill on the right is a counterfeit containing a deadly amount of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The Drug Enforcement Administration warns of a new wave of counterfeit pills resembling prescription medications as part of its new “One Pill Can Kill“ campaign. DEA photos.

In Jackson County and across the West Coast, narcotics officials and medical examiners are seeking a new spikes in overdose deaths linked to counterfeit painkillers containing deadly doses of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

There were 14 confirmed fentanyl overdoses in Jackson County that resulted in death, according to the latest numbers provided by Jackson County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Aaron Lewis.

That surpasses the 13 fentanyl overdoses in 2020 and more than doubles the six fentanyl overdose deaths that the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office saw in 2019.

The 14 fentanyl overdoses are part of the 30 confirmed drug overdoses through July, but the medical examiner’s office believes counterfeit pills to be linked to many of the 39 additional death investigations still awaiting toxicology results.

Fueling the rise in fentanyl-related deaths are a new wave of counterfeit pills that look like legitimate prescription medications but test positive for the synthetic opioid, according to Lewis and an alert issued last week from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Among the deaths under investigation by the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office this year include a 39-year-old White City man who took what he thought was a 15mg oxycodone pill. The remaining round pills stamped with a convincing “M” on one side and “15” on an the other field, Lewis said, field tested positive for oxycodone.

Another local overdose death involved a 27-year-old Medford woman thought she was taking hydrocodone that investigators determined actually contained lethal amounts of fentanyl — more than 2 milligrams, or an amount about the size of a pencil point.

What was stamped into the pill had almost no relation to what was actually inside it, according to Lewis, although sheriff’s office detectives and medical examiner’s office investigators have found instances where fentanyl has been combined with other drugs such as meth, with fentanyl or fentanyl and heroin.

“There’s no official oversight or quality control,” Lewis said. “They’re just measuring out what they want to put in there and selling them.”

Between the start of 2019 and the last week of September, the number of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl have increased about 430%, according to the DEA Public Safety Alert for the Pacific Northwest issued by the DEA Seattle office.

Some 42% of the pills containing fentanyl that the DEA has tested contain amounts that can be deadly.

According to the DEA’s new “One Pill Can Kill” campaign, national and international drug networks make illicit fentanyl overseas in “clandestine labs” by the kilogram. The deadly narcotic is then sold to other drug traffickers and dealers inside and outside the United States who break the fentanyl down into hundreds of thousands of pills stamped to look like legitimate OxyContin, Tylox and Percodan pills.

Not all of the fake pills are painkillers.

Two local fentanyl deaths this year — one involving a 40-year-old Jacksonville woman and another involving an 18-year-old Talent man — thought they were taking the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.

“That’s really dangerous,” Lewis said. “They’re definitely not looking for that kind of high, I would assume.”

Short of laboratory testing, Lewis said the counterfeit pills can be impossible to discern between legitimate pills.

“You’re rolling the dice pretty hard on that one,” Lewis said.

No arrests have yet been made in any of the deaths, but Lewis said investigations into the source of the overdose deaths is still ongoing.

Jackson County Public Health has had an overdose alert because of fentanyl related deaths since Feb. 28, and the alert remains in place, according to Jackson County Health and Human Services Health Promotions Manager Tanya Phillips.

Health officials say that the safest way to reduce the risk of an overdose is to abstain from drug use. For information on treatment resources, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration at 1-800-662-4357 or visit the Oregon Recovers website at oregonrecoverynetwork.org.

To those using heroin or other illicit opioid drugs, health officials recommend that users know their tolerance, that users go slow when using a new supply, that users be careful when mixing drugs, that users have an overdose plan and that users carry the opioid antidote naloxone.

Under Oregon’s Good Samaritan Overdose law, a person calling for medical help for an overdose won’t be arrested on drug possession of probation violation warrants.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.