Counterfeit painkillers and fake medications made with illegal fentanyl have been found in 40 states — including Texas — according to a report from the Partnership for Safe Medicines, which found the highly dangerous pills have spread from coast to coast.
Johnson County Stop the Offender Program Special Crimes Unit Commander Larry Sparks said this problem began in northern states, but has recently become a massive problem in the south.
“It is starting to get big here in Texas,” he said. “Pills are the No. 1 problem in America, which trickles into heroin abuse and leads to fentanyl. This year has been our busiest year with it.”
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, often used for treating advanced cancer pain.
It is legally available in lozenges, patches and other medications, but in recent years illegal fentanyl has become widely available on the black market, where it is often mixed with heroin or used in the production of counterfeit drugs.
The fake pills are often designed to look like oxycodone or the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, and are hard to distinguish from the real thing.
“They’re relatively cheap [to make] and the profit margin is phenomenal,” said Lisa McElhaney, president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. “You’re talking about such a miniscule amount, but it has such a heavy potency and purity level that it is fatal.”
Sparks said no fentanyl-related deaths have been documented in Johnson County this year, but have been in as close as Tarrant County.
“There have been deaths in Arlington and Fort Worth where ecstasy was laced with fentanyl,” he said. “People are taking whatever drug and putting fentanyl in them and it’s killing people.”
U.S. Attorney John Parker said one of the biggest concerns for law enforcement agencies is how easily the drug can be shipped to Texas from places like China.
“Unfortunately I think what we are likely to see before it gets better is a continued increase and spike in the number of overdoses and deaths,” he said. “We know that fentanyl is coming through the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”
More than half of people in 10 states who died of opioid overdoses during the second half of 2016 tested positive for fentanyl, according to recent data published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The report found that out of 5,152 opioid overdose deaths, almost 3,000 tested positive for fentanyl, and over 700 tested positive for drugs that have similar chemical structures to fentanyl — including the extremely potent fentanyl analog, carfentanil, which is used to sedate large animals.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, even examining fentanyl in labs like the state forensic science center is doing could be dangerous for analysts because lethal doses can even be accidentally inhaled or absorbed through skin.
In August, investigators with the STOP unit set up covert surveillance in Burleson and observed a white male entering into the business where the illegal narcotics were reported to be located.
Agents made contact with the subject, and, during the consent to search, a quantity of high-grade marijuana was located along with one of the largest carfentanil processing labs ever located in North Texas.
Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which itself is 50 times more potent than heroin.
Upon receiving the lab results, an arrest warrant was issued to the suspect, identified as Brady Wirth Gaisser, 29, for manufacturing and/or delivery of a controlled substance PG1, over 400 grams, first-degree felony. He is awaiting trial.