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Deadly fentanyl in half of Oregon heroin

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A tiny amount of fentanyl can kill an adult man by stopping breathing. Dealers are increasingly mixing cheap, powerful fentanyl into street drugs and counterfeit pills. [Drug Enforcement Administration photo]
Dealers putting fentanyl in street drugs, counterfeit pills

Almost half of the heroin used in Oregon is laced with potentially deadly fentanyl, and the state could be headed toward a 100% contamination rate.

The national company Millennium Health, which does drug testing in all 50 states, is sounding the alarm about more and more drug tests coming back positive for fentanyl mixed into heroin, meth or cocaine.

“There’s never been a more dangerous time to use any of these things in this country than right now,” said Eric Dawson, vice president of clinical affairs for Millennium Health.

States in the eastern half of the United States already have fentanyl co-positivity rates in heroin that range from 81% to 100%. The trend is spreading west, according to data from 2019 to 2021.

Together, the West Coast states of Oregon, California and Washington had a 63% fentanyl co-positivity rate for heroin in 2021, according to Millennium Health’s data.

Fentanyl-laced heroin makes up 100% of the heroin supply in some states and is becoming more prevalent on the West Coast, urine and saliva drug tests reveal. Millennium Health graphic

Oregon had a co-positivity rate of 48.7% for heroin, 24.4% for meth and 21.6% for cocaine in 2021. That’s up from 11.4% for heroin, 5.6% for meth and 7.3% for cocaine back in 2019.

The increasing prevalence of fentanyl is contributing to record numbers of overdose deaths locally and nationally.

Overdoses killed 91 people in Jackson County and an estimated 106,854 people in the U.S. in 2021, according to statistics from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s extremely frightening. The overdose rates are not surprising knowing what I know about the potency of fentanyl,” said Dawson, a pharmacist by training.

Fentanyl made by pharmaceutical companies is used in very low doses for severe cancer pain, he said.

It can also be used in surgical settings, where the patient is carefully monitored by medical experts. If fentanyl suppresses breathing, doctors can administer an antidote or use a ventilator, Dawson said.

“You have a person on a ventilator and you breathe for them. We don’t have that out in the neighborhood if someone overdoses,” he said.

International drug trafficking organizations are primarily buying chemicals from China and other countries, making fentanyl in illegal labs in Mexico and selling their product in the United States, Dawson said.

Making fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is much easier than growing opium poppies and processing the seed pod sap into heroin.

And while some customers will inevitably die, fentanyl yields enormous profits.

More drug dealers are using fentanyl to make counterfeit pills that mimic prescription pills for pain, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions. Dealers even stamp their fake pills with an imitation pharmaceutical company mark.

Counterfeit pills made by drug trafficking organizations and laced with fentanyl are nearly indistinguishable from pills made by pharmaceutical companies. Drug Enforcement Administration photo

They can invest $35,000 in one kilogram of fentanyl and a pill-making machine, then churn out one million pills that sell for $20 to $80 per tablet on the streets, Dawson said.

That $35,000 can transform into profits of $20 million or more, he said.

“When people ask me if fentanyl will leave our communities any time soon, I say, ‘Not with that degree of profitability.’ You can turn $35,000 into $20 million. It’s unbelievably profitable,” Dawson said.

Drug trafficking organizations can rake in more money with fentanyl than heroin.

A kilogram of heroin costs about $5,000 and translates into about $80,000 in revenue, Dawson said.

He said fentanyl pills can reach a wider audience. Everyone knows how to take a pill, even if they don’t know how to use heroin or meth.

“The counterfeit tablets are a game-changer,” Dawson said.

People who would never knowingly take heroin or meth are more willing to buy a pill on the streets and swallow it, thinking it’s a prescription pain medication. Or they might accept a pill from a friend.

“I have two daughters. I drill into them that they can only take what comes from a doctor. You can’t take a pill from anyone else — not even your best friend in the world,” Dawson said.

When people buy pills off the street, they sometimes try to reduce the danger by cutting pills into halves or quarters. But pills made by illegal labs don’t have an even distribution of medication. A quarter tablet could contain a lethal amount of fentanyl, said Kelly Olson, clinical affairs director for Millennium Health.

The rising danger of fentanyl-laced pills has prompted the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to launch a “One Pill Can Kill” public safety campaign.

Olson said fentanyl has spread so quickly most members of the public are unaware of the danger.

Millennium Health provides drug testing of patients being seen by doctors, therapists and addiction treatment providers for a variety of physical and mental health care — ranging from prenatal care to chronic pain management to substance use disorder treatment.

Some testing is done to track if patients are taking their prescription medication as recommended, or if they’re using illicit drugs.

When drug test results come back, some patients who test positive for fentanyl have no idea how they consumed the potentially deadly drug, Olson said.

“They were just as surprised as their counselor or clinician,” she said.

Dawson and Olson have safety tips and recommendations for the public.

Never experiment with illicit drugs, don’t take pills unless they are prescribed to you, and warn family and friends of the danger.

If you do have a substance use disorder, seek help.

“There’s never been a more important time to seek treatment,” Olson said.

Anyone at risk of exposure to fentanyl or other opioids, including prescription pain pills, should have an overdose antidote kit on hand, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

The Rogue Valley-based organization Max’s Mission provides free opioid overdose antidote kits plus fentanyl test strips. Visit www.maxsmission.org for information on distribution events, pick-up locations, local addiction treatment providers or to request the antidote by mail.

Call 911 immediately if someone appears to be overdosing, even if you have administered overdose antidote. The person can slip back into an overdose and die.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.