COLUMBUS – 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 10o,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.”
This article was made available through Hoosier State Press Association.