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APD undercover cops: Fentanyl knockoffs pose deadly challenge

These two vials, labeled heroin and fentanyl, represent the approximate fatal dosage for each drug. (Source: Bruce A. Taylor/New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

That light blue pill someone offers you could be prescription oxycodone painkiller.

It might just be an antacid manufactured to look like oxycodone.

Or, it could be a knockoff containing fentanyl that can kill you with a single dose.

You never know.

A trio of undercover Albuquerque police officers took the unusual step last week of consenting to a Journal interview to warn of the dangers of counterfeit oxycodone pills circulating in New Mexico.

“We live in this community. We’re doing this for our kids,” said one narcotics unit supervisor. “What is scary is they could get offered these (pills) at school. But the person that’s handing you this pill doesn’t have any idea what is in it, and such a small dose can be so deadly. It (the proliferation of counterfeit oxycodone) would be catastrophic for our community.”

Over the past year, plastic baggies of such pills containing the deadly opioid fentanyl – 50 times more powerful than heroin – have shown up at drug busts, traffic stops and other law enforcement operations in New Mexico.

The FBI is seeking the whereabouts of Marysol Pena, of Arizona, who is wanted on federal narcotics charges after a joint FBI-New Mexico State Police investigation led to the seizure of an estimated 2,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills, and 15 pounds of methamphetamine. (Source: FBI)

“Nobody has any idea what’s in this pill, even the dealers selling it,” the APD supervisor said. “This looks like medication from the doctor. And that’s what’s scary. The public thinks this is somehow better than using heroin or meth. Like it’s more socially acceptable because it’s a pill. Users are thinking they’re getting prescription drugs.”

Albuquerque police declined to say how much has been seized over the past year. But state and federal search warrants and arrest records show at least 5,500 suspected counterfeit oxycodone pills have been confiscated since January, along with 18 pounds of powdered fentanyl.

In January, an FBI-State Police undercover operation netted an estimated 2,000 fentanyl pills disguised as the painkiller oxycodone.

Two people were arrested in the bust, but the FBI says a third suspect, a convicted drug trafficker with alleged connections to a Mexican drug cartel, is still on the loose.

Marysol Pena, of Arizona, is wanted by the FBI on federal charges after she allegedly sent a runner from Arizona to deliver the pills along with a 15 pounds of methamphetamine to a location in southeast Albuquerque. The fentanyl pills were disguised as the pain reliever oxycodone, leaving the consumer with no idea what they actually bought, according to the FBI.

“The amount of fentanyl in each pill was not consistent,” said FBI special agent Bryan Acee in a recorded statement on the FBI website. “So one of them could have three times as much as the last pill you took. And that was a significant concern to us.”

New Mexico State Police Major Troy Weisler said that, over the past six months, his officers have noticed counterfeit oxycodone pills “are getting a lot more common locally.”

In the past, fentanyl chiefly in powdered form was intercepted in New Mexico as runners headed from the West Coast by train or bus to deliver to Chicago or the East Coast. Now the pills are also in circulation in New Mexico.

Weisler said the use of counterfeit pills can be linked in part to the national crackdown on prescription painkillers. In recent years, those who can no longer get prescriptions for the highly addictive oxycodone painkillers have resorted to buying heroin on the streets.

“Heroin makes a big comeback, and at some point the Mexican cartel or those on the Internet start realizing, ‘I can make even more money by cutting my heroin with fentanyl,’ which is a synthetic opioid. ‘Because fentanyl is so much stronger I can stretch (heroin) even further.’

“So it’s only a matter of time before, they say, ‘why even bother with the heroin, just get the fentanyl.’ The problem with fentanyl, though, is that it is so potent that if the dosage is off at all, you’re going to kill somebody.”

Counterfeit oxycodone is “a more palatable product for a wider market if it’s just a pill you take,” Weisler said. Fentanyl is an accepted pain killer that physicians prescribe for cancer and other types of pain. But the drug typically comes in transdermal patch form where the dose is carefully controlled.

But in the dark contraband market, traffickers are mixing fentanyl with other drugs and “they’re blending it and then throwing it in a pill press,” Weisler said. That’s why the amounts of fentanyl in each pill vary.

With the M30 marking of the actual drug, counterfeit oxycodone pills can sometimes be identified because of speckling or difference in color.

Prosecutions

In one of the first federal prosecutions of its kind in New Mexico, a federal jury in Albuquerque earlier this month found Raymond Moya guilty of supplying heroin resulting in death to an 18-year-old former La Cueva High School student who died from an overdose in 2011.

Federal law permits such prosecutions involving any kind of controlled substance that results in death. Moya faces up to life in prison.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Attorney in Colorado encouraged law enforcement officers in his state to investigate opioid overdose deaths as homicides – an idea some APD undercover narcotics officers have discussed.

But it isn’t easy to find those who provide the counterfeit oxycodone pills to people who have overdosed.

“You try to track it,” said one APD undercover officer. “But when somebody ODs (overdoses), nobody wants to say anything. You ask the friends, they can’t give me the exact person.”

The pills show up for sale on the Internet, too.

“Social media is where it’s at,” the officer told the Journal. “There’s hundreds of group chats that deal with these (pills) in New Mexico.”

Along with interdiction and arrests, informing the public about the counterfeit pills is vital because the stakes are so high, the APD narcotics officers said.

“This is our community,” one supervisor said. “This is going to be an epic battle, I believe.”

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