POCATELLO — Local police have a warning for Gate City area residents — the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl is increasingly being mixed with or disguised as other drugs and has become significantly prevalent within the region.
Pocatello Police and other investigators with a multi-jurisdictional drug enforcement agency located in the City Creek trailhead area around noon Thursday a thermal canister typically used to keep beverages hot or cold that contained approximately 3,000 counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl and disguised to look like 30 milligram oxycodone hydrochloride.
“Earlier today, members of our narcotics task force were in the City Creek trailhead area and located a canister containing approximately 3,000 pills that are believed to be fentanyl-laced counterfeit oxycontin pills that are very dangerous,” said Pocatello police Capt. Bill Collins. “We want to warn the public that if you see something out in public, don’t touch it, call local police and the officers can come and look at it.”
Collins said the prevalence of fentanyl — a controlled substance about 100 times more potent than morphine that’s typically used to treat patients with chronic pain or severe pain after a surgery — is circulating across the United States, but has particularly hammered the Pacific Northwest region of the country. The pills discovered in Pocatello carry a street value between $60,000 and $90,000, Collins added. Pocatello police have seen fentanyl-laced narcotics within the Gate City area off and on consistently over the last several years, said Collins, adding that the discovery of such a large quantity of pills out in the open, however, is a first for the department.
According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, illicit fentanyl is primarily manufactured in foreign clandestine labs and smuggled into the United States through Mexico.
“In the Pacific Northwest over the last few months we have just been inundated with these pills,” Collins said. “They are all across the country but in our area we have seen a large increase in them. These pills are mostly manufactured in Mexico, are part of the cartel and are not legitimate.”
Exemplified by the discovery of the 3,000 counterfeit oxycontin pills located in Pocatello on Thursday, fentanyl is being mixed in with other illicit drugs to increase potency, being sold as powders and nasal sprays and increasingly pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription opioids, says the DEA, adding that because there is no official oversight or quality control, these counterfeit pills often contain lethal doses of fentanyl, with none of the promised drug.
Further, producing illicit fentanyl is not an exact science. The DEA says two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage. DEA analyses have found counterfeit pills ranging from .02 to 5.1 milligrams — more than twice the lethal dose — of fentanyl per tablet.
“These pills are extremely dangerous and essentially impossible to discern as being fake or legitimate by appearance alone,” Collins said. “We have seen lots of overdoses in our area because of fentanyl, which we have found laced with methamphetamine, heroin and other pills. We don’t want anyone touching them and we certainly don’t want anyone to ingest them.”
The Centers for Disease Control says synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths in the United States, increasing nearly 40 percent during the 12-month period ending in May 2020.
During this period, 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths, said the CDC, adding that 18 of these jurisdictions reported increases greater than 50 percent and 10 western states reported over a 98 percent increase in synthetic opioid-involved deaths.
Overdose symptoms of synthetic opioids including illicit fentanyl include stupor, changes in the size of pupils, cold and clammy skin, blue discoloration of the skin, coma and respiratory failure leading to death.
In May, the Idaho State Journal profiled police in Pocatello and Chubbuck who saved the lives of two overdose victims on Mother’s Day. Just days later, the Pocatello Police sent out a news release warning the public about the dangers of drug overdoses and emphasized that Idaho law allows those who seek medical assistance for anyone experiencing a drug-related medical emergency to avoid criminal prosecution.
“The whole premise of our mission statement, community commitment, is the preservation of human life,” Collins said. “That is what we care about the most. We cannot pursue a charge against you for just having this drug in your system or a small, user amount on your person if you or someone else calls 911 for medical services. Now having said that, if you have a kilo of drugs strapped under your arm, you’re probably going to get charged.”
Pocatello police say they have a few different speculations as to how or why the thermal canister containing about 3,000 fentanyl-laced pills were left in the City Creek trailhead area, but declined further comment due to the active and ongoing investigation. Collins did confirm that Pocatello police have information to believe there may be other similar canisters placed within the local area.
Additionally, Collins said aside from the obvious safety issues associated with handling or ingesting fentanyl, Pocatello police are asking residents not to touch any suspicious containers and to instead phone police in order to preserve evidence that could be used to identify and charge any persons involved with trafficking the substance.
“I can’t comment as to why (these counterfeit pills) were placed (near the City Creek trailhead), but they were placed there on purpose,” Collins said. “We don’t want people touching this stuff because we want to make sure the canisters are intact and not contaminated any more than by the person who placed them there so that we can process them for fingerprints or DNA.”
Anyone who might have any information about the counterfeit oxycontin pills that contain fentanyl that were located Thursday is encouraged to contact Pocatello police at 208-234-6100.
“Unfortunately, there are people in our society that make a living doing this,” Collins said about those involved with the illicit drug market. “We would like to get those people off the streets.”