Counterfeit pills TBI Xanax

The TBI provided photos of a real Xanax bar on the left and counterfeit Xanax bars that were seized by the agency on the right. 

Counterfeit pills are the newest face of the opioid crisis and all across Tennessee law enforcement agencies are warning about their risks and the role of fentanyl in the state's rising overdose deaths.

This recent evolution of the ongoing opioid crisis has seen these counterfeit pills pop in communities across the state, including in Williamson County, with some of those pills resulting in the death of Tennesseans.

"In 2020, we lost 3,032 Tennesseans to deadly overdoses and that is an alarming 45% increase from 2019 to 2020," Tennessee Health Department  Commissioner Lisa Piercey said earlier this month in a joint news conference with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. "That even exceeds the national increase of 30% in the same time period."

According to TDH, this increase has been seen most in people aged 35-44 years old and have most commonly involved fentanyl and methamphetamine, although counterfeit pills have been passed as a variety of regulated pharmaceutical pills such as Oxycodone, Vicodin, Adderall, Percocet and generic and name brand Xanax. 

“Last year in America over 93,000 people died as a result of a drug overdose and the primary driver of those overdoses was fentanyl,” Brett Pritts, Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Nashville said. 

"This year alone, DEA and our law enforcement partners have seized over 9 million counterfeit pills and over 7 million of those pills contained fentanyl,” Pritts said. “This is more than the last two years combined.”

According to the TBI, about half of the pills that have been sold or branded on the street as Oxycodone and tested by the TBI’s lab don’t contain any Oxycodone and instead test positive for fentanyl. 

“If you’re buying pills on the street in our state, you’re gambling with your life,” TBI Director David Rausch said. “Those making these pills don’t care about quality control, they only care about profiting from other people’s addictions.”

That joint Oct. 11 news conference can be viewed in full below, courtesy of WZTV FOX 17 News Nashville.

Fentanyl in the United States has long been tied to China where it is being produced on a mass scale and shipped around the world, and some U.S. law enforcement agencies believe that China's role in the crisis is an intentional act meant to kill Americans, something that's led to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to consider classifying fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction.

While fentanyl generally originates oversees, it's known to either be transported to the U.S. in powder form where's it's pressed into pill form, or transported to Mexico where it's pressed and distributed in the U.S., while it's also been known to also be produced in Mexico under the control of cartels.

THE WILLIAMSON COUNTY IMPACT

Assistant District Attorney signed to the 21st Judicial District Drug Task Force Sean Duddy helps to investigate and prosecute drug crimes, and said in a phone call that no community is immune from the ongoing crisis of counterfeit pills.

“Right now it is a very big problem everywhere, including Williamson County," Duddy said.

According to Duddy, an unidentified law enforcement source who specializes in narcotics investigations said that around 97% of the heroin and around 75% of pills that are being seized and tested by Williamson County law enforcement agencies are laced to some extent with fentanyl.

“What you’re seeing around here and around the state and the country are the fake pills -- Roxicodone is the big one -- that is coming in and can contain some elements of heroin or methamphetamine, but often times they are laced with  fentanyl, and the danger there is the mere fact that it takes such a small amount of fentanyl to be deadly.”

According to the DEA, fentanyl is fifty times more potent than heroin and as little as 2 mg can be lethal to humans, an amount that's small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.

This spring, the Franklin Police Department conducted a narcotics raid at an unidentified Franklin apartment complex following an anonymous tip, which according to FPD Public Information Officer Lt. Charlie Warner, led to the seizure of three thousand pressed fentanyl pills that were being sold as Roxicodone. 

Warner said in an email that the investigation also led to the seizure of other unspecified drugs and a gun, as well as the indictment of three people on a variety of drug charges, with one of those people admitting to police to having pressed counterfeit pills with a fentanyl mixture inside of a Columbia home.

According to Duddy, around half of the overdose deaths that are currently investigated in the 21st judicial district involve counterfeit pills, and about half a dozen of that undisclosed number of investigations have moved to the prosecution phase in the Williamson County court system.

“Counterfeit pills have always been a small source of the illegal substances that are available on the street, so it’s always been there,” Duddy said, recalling past busts of drugs such as ecstasy. “That capability has always been there, it’s just never been on the scale that it is now.”

The State of Tennessee offers addiction resources to those in need by calling or texting the Tennessee REDLINE at 1-800-889-9789, but for those who are found to be manufacturing or distributing counterfeit pills that result in the overdose death of a person, they could face 15-25 years in prison.

“When you knowingly provide a controlled substance that has the lethality that fentanyl has and that person that you’re providing it to does die from it, as far as we’re concerned from a law enforcement perspective and a prosecution perspective, you killed that person, and we will prosecute you accordingly," Duddy said. "And now we have the tool in our statue to do so.”