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Tennessee law enforcement, health leaders warn of fake pills laced with fentanyl

Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 6:25 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee law enforcement and health leaders say drug overdose deaths are skyrocketing and fake prescription pills on the black market are driving those numbers higher.

Pill shopping on the black market isn’t new, but law enforcement leaders from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) say what they’re finding in those pills is new.

They say the black market is being flooded with fake pills that look real, but contain deadly amounts of drugs like fentanyl.

“The reality is they’re being shipped everywhere, so every community has the potential to see these show up in their neighborhoods,” said TBI Director David Rausch.

Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

It takes only a small amount, about the size of a tip of a pencil, to be deadly.

“Last year, more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States. This was the largest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded in a single year,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco.

Monaco said opioids were responsible for 75 percent of overdose deaths in 2020.

She said the primary driver of those deaths was illicit fentanyl, the synthetic opioid found in fake pills.

In Tennessee, more than 3,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020, according to Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey.

Piercey said that represented a 45-percent increase from the previous year.

Late last month, the DEA issued a rare public safety alert to warn Americans about the increase in fentanyl and methamphetamine in fake prescription pills.

The DEA says lab analyses reveal two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contain a potentially deadly dose.

The DEA says it seized more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills this year, more than the last two years combined.

Law enforcement experts say these fake pills are made in Mexico with chemicals from China.

“We know the vast majority of illegal fentanyl that is entering our country is coming from nation-state actors in China that are partnering with the cartels in Mexico,” said Rausch.

Experts said there are a couple of big reasons people often look for prescription drugs on the black market.

For some, they may be cheaper than those they can get at a pharmacy. For others, it’s an easy way to find pills to feed their addiction.

“We have an addiction problem just like every other state in this country,” said Marie Williams, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS).

Health leaders said there is plenty of help available for those who are addicted to pills or other substances.

Those in Tennessee can call or text the Tennessee REDLINE, a 24/7/365 resource for substance abuse treatment referrals, at 1-800-889-9789.

Arkansans can call the Arkansas Crisis Center at 1-888-274-7472.

Mississippians can call the state-sponsored hotline for mental health and/or substance abuse needs at 1-877-210-8513.

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