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Deadly Counterfeit Opioid Pills Fooling Experts, Killing Californians

WALNUT CREEK (KPIX 5) -- At a Walnut Creek memorial held on International Overdose Awareness Day, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends all came to honor their loved ones.

At the location, a huge banner, imprinted with hundreds of names. Around the gazebo, dozens of photographs featuring beautiful young faces: each one lost to a drug overdose.

"Well we have been absolutely devastated by our son's death," explained April Rovero. Rovero's son Joey died of an accidental overdose from a combination of drugs which included opioids.

The United States and California are in the throes of a deadly prescription painkiller epidemic. Millions of Americans are now addicted. California leads the nation in opioid-related deaths.

But, now the toll is growing by thousands of more deaths a year, thanks to a disturbing new trend.

"We've seen a surge in the use of counterfeit synthetic opioids and one of the worst of the worst is fentanyl," said Contra Costa County's Public Health Director Dan Peddycord.

Fentanyl: the powerful painkiller that helps cancer patients cope with excruciating pain is now killing young and old alike. The musician Prince died from a fentanyl overdose, according to autopsy records. This drug is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

"It's not just regular fentanyl, but its fentanyl analogs and we definitely don't know how strong those are." exclaimed UCSF researcher and toxicologist Doctor Patil Armenian. Armenian is affiliated with the UCSF Fresno Medical Education and Research.

Federal and state officials tell KPIX News that drug dealers are making, and putting different versions of fentanyl into counterfeit drugs sold on the street. In addition, novel synthetic opioids are flooding the market. One drug, nicknamed "Pink" but identified in official records as U-47700, is linked to at least 120 deaths across the nation. The DEA just temporarily banned the drug, citing the imminent danger to public health. The toll is horrifying: 2 young boys from Park City Utah experimented with "Pink", and were found dead in their respective beds by their parents. Toxicology reports indicate both boys died of an overdose of U-47700

Overdoses are not uncommon.

"It's almost like playing Russian Roulette if you're buying a counterfeit pill or a pill off the street," said DEA Special Agent in Charge John Martin. Martin is in charge of the San Francisco Field Division.

"If we're lucky enough to bring them back to the point where they can tell us what happened... they will say "I took a pill and it looks exactly like my other pills," explained Doctor Hallam Gugelmann. Doctor Gugelmann is an ER specialist at the CPMC St. Luke Campus.

These fake pills have the right shape, the exact color, and the unique imprint stamped on them as required by law. Even the experts are stunned.

"Some of our analysts with 20 years' worth of experience were saying they look completely legitimate," said Jennifer Harmon. Harmon is the assistant director of the Forensic Chemistry Bureau for the Orange County Crime Lab. Not all crime labs test each and every illicit pill that's submitted. Orange County's crime lab does.

Since last year, the crime lab no longer simply identifies illicit drugs by look. Each one undergoes a chemical analysis.

The tally of counterfeits is growing.

"We didn't even know what we were missing," said forensic scientist Erin Doyle.

"We were shocked," added Harmon.

Roughly 10% of the illicit drugs submitted to the lab is counterfeit. Many contain fentanyl.

"It was definitely scary. to realize that things that looked so legitimate were not," said Doyle.

She showed us OxyContin pills, Norco tablets as well as black tar heroin. And they all were or contained fentanyl.

"We have found them in pills, in powders, solids, liquids, even in substances that look like black tar heroin," said Doyle.

The fentanyl found in the lab are often analogs or versions of the drug. Chemists make them by manipulating their chemical structure but very little is known about their toxicity and dosing. One version that's now making the rounds is called Carfentanil. It's used to sedate elephants.

"It's 10,000 times more powerful than morphine," explained DEA Special Agent Martin.

Carfentanil is responsible for a growing number of overdoses and overdose deaths.

"If they get the same quantify of what they think is heroin and it's really fentanyl they're going to stop breathing and die." said Doctor Armenian.

A deadly dose is the size of a grain of sand. So why would anyone take a counterfeit?

"Because they're desperate." said 25-year-old Kent Killeen of San Ramon.

As a young boy, Kent was prescribed Vicodin after he was hit by a car. He became addicted to prescription pain pills. His doctor cut him off.

"Then I started using illicit pain pills." said the young man. These pain pills are often stolen from medicine cabinets and resold on the street. But the real thing commands a big price. Kent found himself turning to lower cost heroin and counterfeits to ward off the frightening withdrawal. He explained that addicts will do anything to feel better.

"Because they are so sick to the point that they're crawling that they're on the toilet and throwing up into the shower at the same time and they just want out they don't want to be sick anymore," said Kent.

As to why fentanyl is now flooding the illegal drug market?

"They can make so much money off this," explained Martin.

Fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and novel synthetics are now preferred by the Mexican drug cartels as well as U.S illegal drug traffickers, because a very, very little goes a long ways.

According to the DEA, a kilo of heroin can make $80,000 in profit. But with a kilo of fentanyl, you can make enough pills to make $10,000,000 and you don't have to grow opium poppies, harvest them, and then ship them to the illegal drug makers.

You make fentanyl, its analogs and novel synthetics in a lab.

You can even buy the chemicals online. primarily from secret labs in China.

"They're being shipped directly to the United States." explained Martin.

On websites, the drugs are called "Research Chemicals" that not intended for human consumption. It's an attempt to get around U.S. Federal Drug Laws. But it's also a code to those seeking the drugs.

"It's actually a party drug that may or may not be legal yet." explained Armenian. She and her colleagues did a research study.

Her team bought research chemicals from 8 different websites, using just credit card.
Six shipments arrived. The scientists then tested the drugs and to their horror, found these drugs were exactly as advertised. .

"I'm surprised that more weren't stopped by Customs," said Armenian.

At the memorial, friends and families released white balloons all in the shape of doves . Each one represented a lost soul. But there is hope in the air.

"I've never given up hope. Never give up hope on your addict," said Debora Killeen, Kent's mother. Debora began a support group near her home, called the "Naranon Family Group Danville"
She said the need in the Danville, Alamo, and San Ramon Valley area is great.

Kent is recovering and employed full-time. He knows he can relapse

"Oh absolutely," he stated.

He takes it one day at a time.

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