Using a simple tablet stamping press, law enforcement trainer Matthew Gutwill showed how easy it is for foreign drug cartels and local drug dealers to make counterfeit Xanax, OxyContin or Vicodin pills, pills that could kill you.
The goal, he said, was to bring awareness of the exploding opioid overdose crisis, one that is being driven by both the knowing and unwitting use of fentanyl, which often winds up in counterfeit drugs.
According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, 67% of last year’s drug overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which was initially developed for pain management in cancer patients and is 50-100 times stronger than morphine.
The average person, often a teen, buying the fake pill on the street, the dark web or from a friend usually doesn’t know it is counterfeit and doesn’t know it contains fentanyl.
“As a result, they’re getting a pill that was not manufactured by a pharmaceutical company, it’s a pill that was made, most likely in Mexico, and most likely it contains fentanyl,” he said, noting that roughly anything more than 2 milligrams can be lethal.
Gutwill, who works for a Maryland-based company called Federal Resources, which provides services and technology to the military and law enforcement agencies around the country, conducted the demonstration during a training session Tuesday with Rohnert Park police officials.
During the training session, Gutwill showed Rohnert Park police staff how fentanyl test strips could be used to detect the presence of the drug from a small plastic bag containing a few blue pills. The test procedure, which is similar to a COVID-19 test, required just a few swabs on the inside of the plastic baggy containing the pills.
The swab stick is placed in a small vial of solution and shaken before a test strip is dipped into the vial for 15 seconds. A single red line indicates the presence of fentanyl and two red lines mean a negative result.
“Obviously, right now the current programs that we have clearly have not done the job because we still have tons of people that are using drugs,” Gutwill said. “We give out Narcan to help them if they overdose. Why don’t we give them something that will prevent the overdose in the first place.”
The police training session in Rohnert Park took place the day before the county officials held a forum in Santa Rosa focused on overdose response strategies. The forum included, representatives of county health services, the district attorney’s office, the DEA and its Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
The forum was organized by Melissa Struzzo, substance use disorder services section manager for the county health services department, and Mark Karandang, drug intelligence officer for Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Struzzo said the summit, the first of its kind held in Sonoma County, said the summit was organized in response to a growing fatal overdose crisis that has only gotten worse during the pandemic.
“Sonoma County has the second highest rate of overdoses in the Bay Area,” Struzzo said. “We realized that whatever strategies we’re trying, they’re not working. We’re not moving the dial.”
The goal of the summit it to bring a more collaborative approach to dealing with crisis. Public safety, public health and behavioral health, all need to work together and share their information, she said.
During the forum, Dr. Kelly Olson, a neuroscientist with Millennium Health, a San Diego-based specialty laboratory that provides urine and oral fluid drug tests, presented the findings of a recent study that examined 2 million unique patient urine specimens collected in health care specialties across the country. The report found that between 2019 and 2020, deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, soared 60% and accounted for 60% of all drug overdose deaths in 2020.
Olson said the presence of fentanyl in patients who test positive for other drugs, known as co-positivity, has also greatly increased since 2019. California saw co-positivity increases of 249% with fentanyl and heroin; 320% with fentanyl and methamphetamine; and 223% with fentanyl and cocaine.
Olson told The Press Democrat that people sometimes know that they’re taking fentanyl and other drugs together but many times people do not. The rise of fentanyl has been quick in recent years, she said.
Olson, Gutwill and law enforcement officials say illicit fentanyl is often found in varying concentrations in counterfeit pills, heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. Poor mixing procedures, often through the use of a blender, could result in one pill or batch of a certain drug containing lethal amounts of the synthetic opioid, while another could contain much less.
“We need to stress, this is illicit fentanyl … It’s anybody’s guess as to what potentially is in it, what the dose is,” Olson said.