A warning to those illegally buying prescription drugs on the street: you may not be getting the drug you sought.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department is warning that pills ostensibly being sold as the sedative Xanax on the street may contain fentanyl, which is an extremely potent, short-acting opioid drug that is one of the major causes of drug overdose and death. According to the sheriff, the counterfeit Xanax pills are made with a pill press and look the same as Xanax.
Local officials have frequently tied prescription drug abuse to the rising tide of heroin addiction and overdose deaths. According to multiple health studies, as many as 75 percent of heroin addicts began with an addiction to a prescription drug, buying it on the street when doctors would no longer write prescriptions, and then switching to heroin, which is now being sold in a low-cost pill form that does not have to be injected. Heroin is also being mixed with fentanyl on occasion, which is often a cause of overdoses, according to coroners in Madison and St. Clair counties.
“A key component of the challenge is how heroin begins at the prescription drug abuse level,” said St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly. “The rise of the opioid-based pain medication ... has contributed greatly to the surge of heroin. That’s where it starts.”
This isn’t a junkie in an alleyway. It is in every part of our society: black or white, rich or poor, all ages and occupations.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly
It’s also why the current drug problem is affecting so many parts of society: Anyone can get hooked on a prescription drug, no matter where they come from, Kelly said.
“This isn’t a junkie in an alleyway,” he said. “It is in every part of our society: black or white, rich or poor, all ages and occupations.”
Like Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons, Kelly believes in the importance of drug treatment to break the cycle of addiction. He said he hopes that recent heroin legislation passed by the state will help fund prescription drug dropoff programs at police departments to collect unwanted medications and keep them out of the wrong hands.
Fentanyl, usually dosed in tiny quantities to extremely ill cancer patients, is particularly dangerous when used illicitly, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. The counterfeit pills are called “pressies” and contain a combination of alprazolam (a Valium-related tranquilizer, but 10 times stronger) and fentanyl. Etizolam is a short-acting sedative that depresses the central nervous system, and fentanyl depresses the respiratory system. When taken together, they can be especially dangerous, the sheriff’s department said.
Capt. Mike Dixon of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department said while they have not seen the fake Xanax yet, they have heard of more cases of fentanyl contamination. In addition, the overdose epidemic continues to be a problem. Dixon said on Monday night alone, the sheriff’s department responded to three overdose victims — and in one case, the victim overdosed twice in the same night. “No matter how many people die, it doesn’t seem to stop it,” Dixon said.
Recent statistics showed that while the total number of overdose deaths has dropped slightly in Madison and St. Clair counties, heroin deaths continue to rise. While there is a significant difference in the number of heroin deaths between the counties, Kelly said those numbers may not be a true reflection of the problem, as many overdose victims may be taken to hospitals across the river and die there, in which case they would be counted among St. Louis’ totals.