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Opioid Overdoses Increasing Rapidly Across The Mountain West

About 20 blue-green pills are sitting on a yellow countertop. Half have the letter M printed on the side while the others have the number 30 above a line that divides the pill in half. Most are grouped to the right side of the picture and one is cut in half, revealing a light yellow inside.
United States Drug Enforcement Administration
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is alerting the public of dangerous counterfeit pills killing Americans. Mexican drug cartels are manufacturing mass quantities of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid that is lethal in minute doses, for distribution throughout North America.

Five people died from overdoses in eight days in Kootenai County in North Idaho this month. They all likely involved the extremely potent opioid fentanyl, which laced what appeared to be blue or greenish-blue oxycodone 30mg pills. Otherwise, the deaths were not connected, which is far more concerning than if they were.

John Kempf is district commander for the Idaho State Police in Coeur d'Alene. He says they’ve had troubles with overdoses from black tar heroin, “but just not to the degree of fentanyl.”

“Fentanyl is very volatile, it takes a very, very small amount to kill people. And has varying strengths,” he said.

Beyond that, he said the pills might have even included carfentanil, which is an even more dangerous synthetic opioid. At that point, he said a few salt-sized grains could kill “almost instantaneously.”

Nationally, the CDC estimates we lost around 92,000 Americans to overdoses in the past year, far more than ever before. The pandemic exacerbated mental health challenges and isolation, so that may be part of the reason: but so is the spread of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

It can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, making it extremely easy to overdose. Tiny amounts are often mixed with something else because fentanyl is as cheap as it is powerful. Carfentanil is similar, but even stronger. According to Idaho officials, it’s often made in labs in China and pressed into various forms in Mexico before reaching the Mountain West.

Idaho and Montana are among the states that don’t report what drugs cause lethal overdoses to the CDC, so it’s hard to measure how much the problem is spreading there. However, for all the other states in the region, the CDC is showing a drasticincrease in overdoses from synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado all have greater than 50% increases in those overdose deaths from last June to this May.

As for overdoses from all drugs, they’ve increased across the region, too. Wyoming and Colorado saw thelargest increases in overdose deaths from fall 2019 to fall 2020. They had 47% and 42% increases, respectively.

In that same period, Colorado had the most overdose deaths in the region: an estimated 1,500.

Captain Kempf in North Idaho says this all points to much larger issues in our society – the need to help people who are already suffering.

“There are a significant amount of people within our communities that are dealing with substance abuse issues or emotional crises,” he said. “They need help and support.”

Until they can get that help, though, Kempf warns that no pill or substance is safe if it’s bought in the illegal market. If you end up taking a pill laced with a synthetic opioid, it could be your last.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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