SANTA FE (AP) – Little blue pills are becoming more prevalent across New Mexico, but, while seemingly harmless, they pack a deadly punch.
These blue pills interlope as prescription pills, but they’re anything but doctor-approved.
Fentanyl is finding its way into other products, as well. Heroin, cocaine and even marijuana are being laced with the deadly opioid, the Albuquerque Journal reports.
It takes only 2.2 milligrams to overdose on the drug, said Carlos Briano, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman. The dangerous part is that people might not even realize they’re ingesting it.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is prescribed to treat extreme pain, usually in cancer patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and, in most recent cases, it’s being made illegally, often mixed with cocaine or heroin without the consumer’s knowledge.
The CDC’s provisional data through May 2020 suggests that overdoses attributable to synthetic opioids, which include fentanyl, actually increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DEA tracks seizures by fiscal year and, in half of fiscal year 2021, DEA has already surpassed fentanyl seizures for the entire fiscal years of 2020 and 2019 in New Mexico, Briano said. He said the fentanyl is produced easily by Mexican cartels and clandestine labs in Mexico.
For very little investment – such as $5,000 – the cartels can make thousands of pills that will yield upward of $1.5 million in profit. Briano said the majority of fentanyl they see is in pill form, with the average dose being 1.8 mg. About one in four of the counterfeit pills seized contains a lethal dose.
“I’ve heard Kyle Williamson, special agent in charge, say to some people that you have better odds playing Russian roulette because that’s a one in six chance of dying,” Briano said. “But, with these counterfeit fentanyl pills, you have a one in four chance of dying.”
In the past few months, the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office said it has seen a surge in drug trafficking cases involving fentanyl.
In the most recent cases, the District Attorney’s Office prosecuted a Rio Arriba man in possession of 1,300 fentanyl pills; a person found with 900 fentanyl pills in their car in Santa Fe; and a person with over 500 fentanyl pills in a local hotel.
Assistant District Attorney Russell Warren said the office has noticed a dramatic increase in fentanyl since the winter of 2020. For about the past six months, people being caught with large amounts of fentanyl, and the number of people being caught with fentanyl, has increased “rapidly and scarily,” he said.
“The scary part is one pill can cause an overdose, and then we caught someone with 1,300 pills, that’s potentially 1,300 deaths,” he said.
A lot of the fentanyl the office is seeing is from cartels making fake OxyContin pills, which sell at a higher price. Warren also said he’s seeing fewer heroin offenses because heroin users are likely turning to the fentanyl pills because they were sold fake heroin and are now addicted to fentanyl.
“They’re being sold heroin laced with fentanyl because drug traffickers want to get people addicted to these drugs because they can produce them cheaper, and they’re much more potent and more dangerous,” he said.
This also leads to more overdoses because people don’t know they’re consuming fentanyl, he said.
To help combat this rising, and lethal, issue, Warren said the District Attorney’s office is filing more motions to keep drug traffickers caught with fentanyl in jail during their court proceedings. To the judges’ credit, Warren said, they’ve been approving these motions.
Lt. Scott McFaul, regional drug enforcement task force commander for the New Mexico State Police, said he’s seen a dramatic increase in fentanyl.
McFaul’s region encompasses Taos, Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties. He said he’s seen the most fentanyl increases in Santa Fe County. To his knowledge, the fentanyl seems to be traveling up Interstate 25 from Albuquerque.
He said they’re mainly seeing the fentanyl in pill form, but do also see it in its powder form – which can easily be mixed with heroin. Since January, McFaul said fentanyl has pretty much ended up everywhere.
“We’re seeing this with heroin because it’s cheaper and more potent than normal heroin,” he said. “They utilize that because it’s more bang for their buck, I guess is the worst way to put it.”
He said now that the U.S.-Mexico border is reopening after the pandemic, they’re seeing an uptick in every drug, but primarily fentanyl in pill form.
McFaul said the State Police works closely with federal partners to get the bigger cases prosecuted in federal court because punishments are generally harsher.
Jeremy Apodaca, public information officer for the Española Police Department, said fentanyl is showing up in regular interactions with people whom officers come into contact with. That includes traffic stops.
Española police are seeing these illegally manufactured pills almost on a daily basis. Apodaca said the department has seen a large uptick in the past eight to 10 months.
“It’s going to create more demand and people won’t even realize (they’re using fentanyl) because they feel they’re getting a better high … from one person or one dealer versus another,” he said.
Fentanyl is also dangerous because it can be absorbed through the skin; even handling the pills can pose a risk.
An unsuspecting person might pick up the blue pills in an attempt to dispose of them and absorb a fatal dose of fentanyl through their skin, he said. If someone sees anything like this, Apodaca encourages them to call police and not to touch it.
“We have gloves, we’ll go out there and collect it,” he said. “We’ll handle it properly, or dispose of it properly, whichever it needs. And we’re always available for stuff like that rather than anybody getting hurt.”