Fentanyl-Laced Oxy Responsible For 32 Deaths In Arizona

By Paul Gaita 03/28/17

Officials say the death toll from the fentanyl-laced pills may rise as more toxicology reports are issued by the medical examiner's office.

Person buying pills from a drug dealer.

Counterfeit oxycodone pills containing an illegally manufactured version of the powerful synthetic painkiller, fentanyl, have claimed at least 32 lives in Arizona's Maricopa County over the last 18 months.

Agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) gave a press conference in Arizona on March 21 to alert the public about these pills, which they believe to be manufactured by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations with fentanyl purchased directly from China.

Though the DEA has vowed to continue following the drugs and the traffickers that sell them, both health and law enforcement officials acknowledge that the death toll from these black market pills may rise in the coming months, as more toxicology reports are issued by the medical examiner's office.

The 32 confirmed deaths were recorded between May 2015 and February 2017, and involved mostly white males between the ages of 16 and 64. Eleven of the deaths took place in Phoenix, while seven more were recorded in nearby Mesa, and the remaining 14 in neighboring cities. The highest number of deaths was recorded in September and November 2016, which saw five deaths during each month.

In all cases, the deceased individuals tested positive for fentanyl, though 75% of the overdoses also tested positive for dipyrone (or Metamizole), a pain reliever banned by the United States in 1977 but which remains legal in other parts of the world. 

At the press conference on March 21, Doug Coleman, special agent in charge of the DEA in Arizona, said that the agency was aware of the counterfeit pills entering the United States through the Arizona-Mexico border, but thought they'd be distributed elsewhere.

Thousands of the pills are currently available for street sale, with no way for drug users to tell if they are counterfeit. "They think they're taking oxy, but they're actually taking fentanyl, and it's lights out," said Coleman.

Initially, the cartels were purchasing fentanyl directly from manufacturers in China, but as Coleman noted, they were forced to look elsewhere after China banned the production of carfentanil and three additional synthetic variations of the drug in February 2017. The chemicals used to create the drug are still available for purchase from China, so the cartels may have found a way to manufacture their own version, possibly with the addition of dipyrone and other ingredients.

While Coleman said that the DEA will track down and arrest the parties responsible for the overdose deaths—"We're coming for all of you. It may take us a while to get there, but we're coming for everyone," he said during the conference—he also acknowledged that the four deaths recorded in February of this year indicate that there are likely to be more casualties as a result of these counterfeit pills.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," he concluded.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.