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U.S. Attorney: The epidemic lurking in the shadow of the pandemic
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U.S. Attorney: The epidemic lurking in the shadow of the pandemic

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Twenty-seven hundred dead through July. Not coronavirus. Opioids.

In the first seven months of 2020, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported over 2,700 newly suspected opioid overdose deaths in Arizona. What makes this figure more startling is that there were just over 3,800 suspected opioid deaths in the preceding 30 months. The problem is escalating, and rapidly.

While we navigate a pandemic, we can’t lose sight of the epidemic that is opioid abuse. And that epidemic is fueled by illicit fentanyl — the most dangerous drug we have confronted as a nation.

Prescription fentanyl has legitimate medical uses. But illicit fentanyl, fentanyl made illegally in China and Mexico, is deadly. With fentanyl there is no long and sad story of “fentanyl addiction.” Today, too many of us are only a friend-of-a-friend removed from knowing someone who, believing they’d tried a pain pill they got from a trusted source, overdosed and died because the pill was laced with illicit fentanyl.

Just a few years ago, the opioid epidemic was driven largely by opioids like heroin, morphine, and prescription pain pills. Today, the Mexican drug cartels are trafficking synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil that are manufactured in Mexico or China. One method the cartels use to move the drug is in the form of counterfeit prescription pills. The most common are blue M30 pills that look like prescription oxycodone pills, but are really fentanyl mixed with some filler. The cartels use pill presses — easily purchased online — to press fentanyl into the shape and color of any prescription pill (counterfeit Percocet or Xanax are common). The fakes look so authentic that it often takes an expert to distinguish a counterfeit pill from the real thing.

Because fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, the risk of overdose and death is not only higher, but is present with every single use. As little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal. And drug cartels aren’t in the quality control business. Their labs are often just abandoned structures where large sticks are used to mix fentanyl paste in metal vats. A batch can produce two pills that, though identical in appearance, contain wildly different fentanyl concentrations. When the difference between life and death is measured in milligrams, the consumption of a fake pill is nothing but a game of Russian roulette.

In 2019, the DEA in Arizona seized over 2,000,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl and related substances. Local law enforcement agencies have seized another 300,000 pills. Authorities at our borders have caught over 300 school-age children trying to smuggle these drugs into the United States. The problem is so significant that Attorney General William Barr visited Arizona in September to talk about these issues. But the reality is that even with all we are doing to investigate and prosecute the responsible parties, these dangerous, counterfeit pills are still making their way into our communities, and we all need to do more.

Education about the dangers of opioids is essential. Before the coronavirus, my office reached out to school districts across Arizona to teach children about the dangers of these drugs. Over a six month period, we educated more than 20,000 students, and planned to reach 100,000 students by the end of 2020. But the pandemic has for now thwarted that plan to slow the epidemic. As we await normalcy’s return, and with it, the return of all kids to the classroom, we need you — parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, friends, and the media – to take up this cause and flatten this curve.

Michael Bailey is the United States attorney for the district of Arizona.

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