Investigators warn of synthetic opioids found in counterfeit pills, other forms


AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF)- The opioid epedemic has arrived in Georgia.

Two weeks ago, at least four people were killed and at least 30 were hospitalized in central Georgia after taking what they thought was Percocet.

Turns out, the pills were counterfeit. State officials say it’s the largest cluster of opioid overdoses in state history.

Opiates are pain-relieving drugs derived from poppies, but man-made synthetic opioids can be much stronger. For example, synthetic opioiod fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin or morphine. It’s the fastest-growing cause of overdoses in the country, and the internet has made it more accessible.

Opioids are taking every form, from pills to powders to liquids.

“It makes it really hard to just eyeball a sample now and say what it is,” said Deneen Kilcrease, who is a chemistry section manager at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The latest national data shows fentanyl and similar drugs killed more than 9,500 people in 2015.  That’ a 73 percent jump from 2014.

The opioid problem hits close to home. Several weeks ago in central Georgia, more than two dozen people overdosed within 48 hours. Some of them died.

They all took pills that were marked as Percocet but really contained two synthetic opioids, U-47700, which is 7.5 times stronger than morphine, and a chemical similar to fentanyl than had not yet been seen in Georgia.

“This new one…what is so scary is that when you see new drugs like this, you know…one, they’ve not been studied on humans,” said GBI Public Affairs Director Nelly Miles. “So you have really truly no idea how the body’s going to receive it.”

So where are these dangerous new drugs coming from?

Authorities say some of the most dangerous man-made opiods make their way to the U.S. from Asia, especially China, where many of the chemicals are either legal or more accessible. From there, they are made available to tens of thousands of people on the internet.

Users access the Deep Web, navigating with special programs that allow them evade search engines like Google. Then, they can access the Dark Web, a section of the internet home to underground markets. Many of them offer drugs for sale like fentanyl.

And they’ll ship it right to your home.

One of the ways synthetic opioids are getting into the U.S. from overseas is through the mail. And they can be extremely potent. Enough fentanyl to get nearly 50,000 people high can fit into a single standard first-class envelope.

But sometimes, fentanyl and similar powerful opiates are sold as something else entirely.

“We’re starting to see an influx of pills and the overdoses that have occurred,” said Sgt. Joel Danko, who is with the narcotics division of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. “There’s a lot of these pills that are being used by people that are not what they’re supposed to be.”

Several weeks ago narcotics deputies Richmond County Sheriff’s Office confiscated more than 15,000 fake Xanax pills and close to 1,000 Oxycodone pills.

“We could tell something was wrong with the pills, but we sent them off to be tested,” Sgt. Danko said.

They also confiscated a pill press. That means a dealer may have bought a larger quantity of raw powder elsewhere, and pressed into pills to look like Xanax.

“And I think the take-home message is whether it’s a pill, where it’s a powder, nothing is what it used to be anymore,” Kilcrease said. “Don’t touch anything, and don’t abuse anything.”

Some of these street drugs are also transdermal, which means they can get into your system just by skin contact. Authorities are warning people not to even touch pills or other drugs unless they are known to come from a legitimate pharmacy.

We will update you on the lab results of those counterfeit Xanax when we know more.

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