Keeping Area Families Safe This Summer
Just this past week, three people in Arlington, Virginia overdosed on fentanyl-laced drugs – resulting in two deaths and one in critical condition. Like the majority of the overdose deaths recorded this past year, these overdoses involved suspected, counterfeit prescription pills laced with the deadly synthetic opioid, fentanyl. Throughout the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, the DEA Washington Division has joined with local and federal law enforcement partners to not only investigate these incidents, but to get the word out to our local residents:
Be on the lookout for this dangerous substance.
Matthew led the typical life of a suburban kid in the D.C. metro area for most of his life. He enjoyed playing video games, hanging out with his friends whenever he got the chance, playing ice hockey, snowboarding and spending time fishing. But behind the curtain, the Maryland teenager struggled with drug addiction throughout high school. The 22-year-old lost his battle in November, when he overdosed on what was believed to be Xanax, but was, in fact, counterfeit Xanax pills laced with fentanyl -- a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Jayla, a 17-year-old school daughter and athlete, died just this week from a fentanyl overdose, only a few miles away. Both fell prey to this new form of fentanyl being marketed to young adults.
Tragic examples of the thousands of lives claimed by fentanyl and other drugs. Overdose deaths such as this, climbed to alarming rates in our area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of fentanyl-involved deaths in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have all more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, according to data from each state’s public health department. Fentanyl-involved deaths now make up almost 90% of all drug overdose deaths recorded in the tri-state area. The synthetic opioid played a part in killing over 5,200 residents across the District, Maryland, and Virginia in 2020, compared to approximately 4,300 in 2019.
In our own backyard
Jarod Forget, Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the DEA’s Washington Division, became concerned about the drug’s deadly presence around 2014, while assigned to DEA in Mexico. Now, the U.S. is in the midst of a fentanyl-fueled “overdose epidemic,” he explains.
“It’s a misconception that opioid use is limited to any specific socio-economic, cultural, or population area”, said SAC Forget. “Affluent, suburban areas around the D.C. metro area, are hotspots for the drug in counterfeit pill form.” Our lower income and disadvantaged areas are also hard hit, he said; experiencing fentanyl distribution in new forms like pills and capsules colloquially called “trash cans.”
“For us, it’s now more of a problem than COVID,” said one area family. “This is in your backyard. Whereas before we thought these things were just a city problem -- oh no. It’s here, in the suburbs.”
Fentanyl kills people of all ages -- from 17 years old to 70, said SAC Forget. In the first three months of this year, alone, the synthetic opioid played a role in killing 564 people in Maryland. Most people who died had a combination of fentanyl and other drugs in their system.
The pandemic not only took a toll on people physically but mentally. Some people turned to self-medicating to cope, which may explain some of the rise in opioid overdoses. But the influx of cheap and deadly fentanyl is a large contributor, as well.
Fentanyl's deadly disguise
Counterfeit pills, ordered online or peddled by drug dealers, have experienced a massive spike since the pandemic began. Some of these pills are impossible to tell, on-sight, if they are “real” or “fake”, and are often found to contain deadly amounts of fentanyl.
SAC Forget explains they may look just like a Xanax or Percocet, but can, and often do, contain fatal amounts of fentanyl. The DEA Washington Division laboratories have found over one in every four pills seized to contain a deadly amount of fentanyl. These pills have been seized all across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, in metro areas, as well as small rural communities.
Kids and adults, alike, are online and ordering pills using popular social media apps or the darkweb, using virtual currency to pay suppliers. They see pills look just like the ones they can get from a pharmacy, but cheaper. They seem more socially acceptable than harder drugs like meth or heroin, but don’t realize these pills are counterfeit and contain deadly amounts of fentanyl.
Sammy died last year after taking a counterfeit pill she thought was Xanax, but turned out to contain a deadly amount of fentanyl. His mother, in a post on social media, said her son had ordered the pills online, using the popular Snap Chat app. His room contained no alcohol, drugs or paraphernalia when police found his body.
“There was a tiny amount of fentanyl in that pill,” said Forget, sitting at his desk with photos of seized pills from recent operations in Northern Virginia and Maryland. “Only two milligrams of fentanyl is enough to cause an overdose and what these cartels are selling to our kids, without any regard for a child’s life, is unfathomable.”
It can happen to anybody
Much of the fentanyl found in the U.S., and the ingredients used to make it, come from Mexico. Cartels are ordering tonnage amounts of raw precursor chemicals from China and pressing these chemicals into pills with pharmaceutical grade equipment, Forget said.
Fentanyl is cheap and incredibly potent. The cartels are making street drugs with higher profits and more potency by cutting them with fentanyl, explained Forget. Selling fentanyl to buyers, under the guise of another drug, allows drug dealers to increase profits, create addicts, and attract repeat customers. That is, if their first dose isn’t lethal.
The sharpened tip of a pencil roughly equates to a deadly dose of fentanyl, Forget demonstrated.
Meeting the challenge
The DEA works hard to investigate and dismantle high-profile drug traffickers before fentanyl hits our streets. However, that’s not enough. Forget and members of the DEA Washington Division are dedicated to getting the word out.
Part of the DEA Washington Division’s proactive strategy is keeping regular tabs on the street drugs in our area (what is being sold, how much, how potent, and for what prices), drug trends and threats coming into our area, methods and means in which drugs are being trafficked, and the effect of drug-related violent crime drug in our area – all to make sure they stay ahead of the curve.
They also host dozens of presentations, summits, meetings, and community events every month with area partners and community members to share their findings, knowledge, and come up with better – collaborative and area-specific) solutions.
Forget and his leadership team also spend a lot of time meeting with media, community groups, business leaders, teachers, and youth to get the word out about these threats and to prevent future drug problems.
“With every pill that slips through the cracks, more lives are lost,” Forget proclaimed. “And one life – of our children, our family members, our neighbors – is one too many. We’re dedicated to educating the public about what’s going on and helping keep our area residents and families safe.”
How to help
Also: create discussion. Stay involved in your child’s life – what they are going through, who their friends are, who they are talking online. Check in with your family and friends. Even attend some of our local, community events and follow us on social media for more.
Know the signs of fentanyl overdose -- nausea, vomiting, cold and clammy skin, blue-colored lips and fingernails, slowed or stopped breathing and decreased heart rate. And arm yourself with Naloxone (commonly known by the brand name Narcan). A nasal spray, similar to allergy medicines that works by reversing the side effects of an overdose until a victim can receive further treatment.
Naloxone and training on how to use and administer can be obtained for free, from DEA prevention partners across the area. It can also be purchased over-the-counter without a prescription. Laws exist that protect people from prosecution who call seeking help in the event of an overdose.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an immediate emergency, call 911.
If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, you can call SAMHSA's National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Stay informed. Keep your family safe. Together, we’ll build a better community.