PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Federal and local investigators are increasingly concerned about the rising level of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine coming into Rhode Island, as overdose deaths have reached a new record nationwide.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week drug overdose deaths topped 100,000 people across the country over a 12-month period, marking a record high. In Rhode Island, law enforcement say part of the problem recently stems from the influx of so many fake pills laced with fentanyl, an addictive and oftentimes lethal synthetic opioid.
“We are seeing these pills in all of our communities in Rhode Island, in places that we have never seen before,” said Jon DeLena, DEA associate special agent in charge in Boston.
The fake pills are often brought into the Unites States by drug trafficking organizations outside of the country, according to DeLena, some of the most common counterfeit pills are Adderall, Xanax, oxycodone and hydrocodone. He said the counterfeit pills look identical to pharmaceutical grade pills, and even the most senior agents can’t tell the different between a real or processed pill until they get tested at the lab.
“The DEA has recognized recently that two out of five pills that we see and are sent to our lab come back with a deadly dose of fentanyl inside,” DeLena said.
In a recent public safety alert, the DEA estimated the number of counterfeit pills with fentanyl nationwide has jumped nearly 430% since 2019. Additionally, methamphetamine is increasingly being pressed into pills, according to the agency. And while a breakdown of Rhode Island data was not immediately available, DeLena said local drug dealers are catching onto the process of pressing pills.
“Local organizations are buying fentanyl in bulk or methamphetamine in bulk and finding out on their own how to buy the equipment to press pills and to put them out for sale,” DeLena told Target 12.
Anecdotally, Cranston Police Chief Colonel Michael Winquist said his department has seen a major increase in the amount of fake pills that are being confiscated off the streets. He said Cranston officers were finding these fake pills a couple times a month, but now they’re popping up almost on a weekly basis.
“That’s what we are seeing and intercepting,” he said. “Who knows how much is actually out there?”
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R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha spokesperson Kristy dosReis said their office “prosecutes a significant number of cases involving counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl.” Some examples included Matthew Heal of Pawtucket, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts in 2019.
Prosecutors said he had more than 10,000 counterfeit pills at his home when the executed a search warrant.
In November, 26-year-old Antonio Vazquez was sentenced to eight years in prison after investigators seized more than 1,500 fake pills and guns in Providence and Pawtucket. Three others were also arrested.
The phony prescription pills are easy to get, according to investigators. They are often sold on social media, through drug dealers or on the dark web.
DeLena said drug dealers will also often target young adults who look to take Adderall. “A college campus is an opportunity to sell these pills because, as we said, there are a lot of students,” he said.
Beyond fentanyl, DeLena said most people would also now know that they could be taking pills laced with methamphetamine as well.
“In the case of the Adderall that’s being made with methamphetamine, often times what they will do is they will sell that to their customer,” DeLena said.
Investigators said they believe these drug dealers are looking to get people hooked, a goal that’s driven by profit and greed. And the trend has only really begun to take hold in a major way within the past year.
“Going back to March of this year is when we first started seeing the Adderall pills made with meth truly explode to the point we are tracking every seizure.” DeLena added.
The nationwide surge of overdose is also being felt locally. More than 380 people fatally overdosed last year in Rhode Island, representing the most of any year since at least 2014, according to data provided by the R.I. Department of Health.
In 2021, four of the six months with finalized numbers of overdose deaths so far exceeded the totals from the same months last year.
Sarah Guernelli (email@example.com) is the consumer investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.