When Indiana State Police pulled over a vehicle traveling on Interstate 65 near Seymour this past November, it didn’t take long for them to suspect that a large amount of drugs was hidden inside.
As police combed through the vehicle, they found crystal meth, loaded handguns and $2,000 in cash. But one of the arresting officers noticed something else that he later referred to in court records as a national “epidemic” — a plastic bag containing 10 blue pills that he suspected “were disguised as prescription medications but were really fentanyl.”
Federal authorities say pills like these are part of a worrying trend seen across the country as criminal drug networks in Mexico and elsewhere ramp up production of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is more potent than heroin but much cheaper to produce and distribute.
Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Administration said its agents had seized a record 9.5 million of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl from January to September, including some 3.8 million that contained lethal amounts of the drug.
That 10-month total was more than the number pills the agency had seized over the previous two years combined.
And some local law enforcement officials now fear that an influx of these pills could be the next wave in a decades-long drug crisis that has killed at least 153 people in Bartholomew County since 2015.
“I think you’re going to see the pill issue become an even bigger issue if it isn’t already, as it comes north through the United States,” said Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers.
So far, most local fentanyl seizures still involve the powder form of the drug, though Columbus police have seized counterfeit Xanax pills containing fentanyl in the past, Columbus Police Department spokesman Lt. Matt Harris said.
In Jennings County, law enforcement officials suspect that the pills are already moving through the area but have not yet intercepted any. Jennings County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy David Turner said sheriff’s deputies there are concerned that the fake pills will drive up “senseless deaths.”
“It’s just a matter of time,” Turner said, referring to the chances that the pills make their way to the Columbus area.
The increase in fentanyl-laced pills in the United States, described by federal officials as a “significant nationwide surge,” represents the latest shift in the multi-billion-dollar illegal drug trade, officials said.
In recent years, drug traffickers have increasingly turned to fentanyl because it is cheaper and easier to produce than heroin and other drugs, according to the DEA.
Soon after that, fentanyl started finding its way into other drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, making them cheaper, more addictive and deadlier, federal officials said.
Now, drug traffickers are mass producing fentanyl in clandestine labs using ingredients largely made in China and have started churning out fentanyl pills under the guise of prescription medications, including Percocet, Adderall, Xanax, oxycodone, among others.
These drugs are increasingly being sold online and delivered by mail. And users often have no idea that they are buying fentanyl, leading to accidental overdoses and “killing unsuspecting Americans at an unprecedented rate.”
US Customs and Border Protection has reported sizing an increasing amount of fentanyl over the past several years.
The agency seized about 11,200 pounds of the drug during fiscal year 2021, up from nearly 4,800 the year before and 2,800 in fiscal year 2019. At the same time, drug overdose deaths have continued to surge in the United States, with over 100,000 Americans now dying from overdoses per year, up from 52,000 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s cheap and easy to manufacture. … Drug dealers are very greedy people. They don’t care whose lives they are destroying. All they care about is that they’re making money.”
In Bartholomew County, deaths from drug overdoses have nearly doubled over the past few years — from 17 in 2018 to 33 last year, reaching their highest levels on record in each of the previous two years, according to data from the Bartholomew County Coroner’s Office.
Experts believe one of the main culprits of the increase is fentanyl, which is now the leading cause of death among Americans ages 18 to 45, according to the CDC.
Locally, fentanyl is becoming “primary fatal drug in drug overdoses,” said Bartholomew County Coroner Clayton Nolting.
For the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco New Generation, who federal officials say are responsible for most of the fentanyl coming into Indiana, the profit margin on the drug “is through the roof,” said Michael Gannon, assistant special agent in charge at the DEA’s Indianapolis Field Office.
“It’s cheap and easy to manufacture,” Gannon told The Republic. “…Drug dealers are very greedy people. They don’t care whose lives they are destroying. All they care about is that they’re making money.”
‘Not getting any better’
Amid this backdrop, Myers traveled to Washington, DC last month to attend the National Sheriff’s Association’s annual conference, but said he “didn’t get very encouraging news” about the state of affairs in the nation’s ongoing drug crisis.
At the conference, US Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies discussed trends in crime, particularly the flow of drugs into the United States, Meyers said.
“I don’t see it getting any better,” said Myers, who sits on the association’s national drug enforcement and homeland security committees.
“There are more drugs coming in from the southwest border at a rapid pace,” Myers added. “Fentanyl is the drug of choice coming across the border. … And the reason (the cartels) are doing this is because the cartels can make much more money pressing pills.”
Now, law enforcement is racing to adapt to the evolving drug trade.
Federal authorities near the US-Mexico border are finding fentanyl pills strapped to the legs of drug runners, inside fish coolers, concealed in hidden compartments in vehicles, among other locations.
Last week, federal authorities in the border city of Nogales, Arizona, seized more than 37,000 fentanyl pills concealed in the spare tire of a vehicle, according to US Customs and Border Protection. The pills had an estimated street value of $1.13 million.
A few days later, border patrol agents in Nogales seized another 1,500 fentanyl pills, capping off what CBP described as a “busy week.”
In November, two men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after ordering enough supplies from China to make 2.5 million fentanyl-laced pills in a backyard pill-pressing operation they ran near Seattle, The Associated Press reported. The pair had obtained equipment that could make their pills appear to be pharmacy-grade oxycodone instead of fentanyl.
In December, the DEA said that its agents in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin had seized 145,000 fentanyl pills, 29 guns and over $647,000 in US currency over the previous four months.
Earlier this month, police in Arizona found 227,000 fentanyl pills concealed in large buffetstyle containers filled with food.
On Tuesday, a Louisville man was arrested after police found 15,000 fentanyl pills in his home, one week after Fort Wayne police seized nearly 1,200 pills believed to contain fentanyl.
“That’s probably what you’re going to start seeing here,” Myers said. “Pills are something that we didn’t see a lot of here at first. I think you’re going to see it a lot more.”
Myers is urging people not to buy prescription drugs off the street or from unauthorized online sources, warning that “you’re putting your life at risk, especially in today’s world.”
‘Not slowing down’
However, fentanyl is not just arriving through the US-Mexico border, said Steve Bansbach, spokesman for CBP’s Chicago field office, which covers Indiana and monitors about 20% of all international mail coming into the United States.
“We see a lot (of fentanyl shipments) from China, Hong Kong, the Netherlands,” Bansbach said. “Those are usually the big countries that we see here locally.”
“You’re starting to see a lot more precursors for fentanyl,” Bansbach added. “People are making fentanyl, more mass production. You have to worry about what is being added to that fentanyl. That is something that we’re always worried about because you can have another additive that can be added that changes the whole chemical makeup and could be actually more deadly than your original fentanyl.”
Locally, officials hope to counter the rise of fentanyl through education and outreach. But they remain concerned that the synthetic opioid is going to continue to have a large share of the illegal drug market for years to come, fueling more overdose deaths and destroying more lives.
“We’ve done everything we can to keep these drugs out, but (the flow of drugs) isn’t slowing down,” Myers said. “ … And they’re coming in larger amounts and more lethal.”