Colorado has entered the third wave — the deadliest wave so far — in the opioid epidemic, as counterfeit opioid pills made to look like real oxycodone or Xanax are supplanting heroin in state drug-smuggling operations, the regional DEA office has warned.
The evidence is in the overdose statistics, which skyrocketed in 2020. Overdoses due to fentanyl doubled in Colorado last year, jumping to 452 compared with 214 the year before. Chemicals used to make the drug are shipped from China to Mexico, where they are made into counterfeit opioid pills and smuggled across the border into the United States.
The Drug Enforcement Agency, along with several law enforcement groups, is working various cases across the state, including tracking illicit pills in northern Colorado and the sale of “xanny bars” — counterfeit Xanax made to look like the legally manufactured white, bar-shaped pills — to young people in Boulder.
In 2020, the DEA’s “strike force group” in Colorado seized more than 77,000 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, 250 pounds of methamphetamine and 60 pounds of heroin. The team arrested 65 people and seized about $1 million, according to the agency’s latest “Drug Threat Assessment.”
The opioid epidemic began with prescription drug addiction, then transitioned to a heroin crisis as states cracked down on prescriptions for oxy, Xanax, Percocet and the rest. Now, in the third wave, sales of counterfeit pills made with potent and deadly fentanyl are climbing while heroin is in decline.
“If you follow it up the food chain, you are back to the same organizations in Mexico that have been sending the methamphetamine and the heroin here for decades,” said Wendi Roewer, field intelligence manager for the Denver office of the DEA. “These are the same exact groups, the same exact families out of the same exact villages that are sending the fentanyl here now.
“That’s our focus: who is it that’s sending the tens of thousands of pills up here before it gets distributed amongst all the social media platforms.”
The Colorado Sun sat down with Deanne Reuter, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration for the region. Reuter, who is based in Denver, oversees investigations into international drug trafficking in four states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. After 20 years as a DEA agent, Reuter was appointed special agent in charge in 2019.
Q: Why is the third wave of the opioid epidemic resulting in more fentanyl overdoses?
Reuter: “Unfortunately, it’s a very deadly wave. The people that are making these mixtures in Mexico, there is no standard of how they are making it. Two milligrams is a lethal dose. The majority of the pills that we are seeing contain an average of 1.8 milligrams. That close. One of our laboratories tested all of the fentanyl pills that are coming in and 26% of the pills contained a lethal dose. You’re playing Russian roulette with a four-cylinder gun. One in four contain a lethal dose.”
Q: How has the drug route changed since the Chinese and U.S. governments worked to block fentanyl from entering via West Coast ports?
Reuter: “The chemists, from what we have seen, started in China. Once China cracked down on the laws in 2019, the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations jumped in. They were doing it before then, but you saw a huge jump once China’s laws went into effect. The Mexican drug-trafficking organizations brought a lot of those Chinese chemists over to help them in the labs. Now they are doing it on their own. The majority of the illicit fentanyl coming into the United States now is coming from Mexico. We’ll see it in powder form. We’ll also see it in pressed pills and the pills are made to look like oxycodone.”
Q: Has the increase in fentanyl changed the DEA’s strategy?
Reuter: “The people that are distributing fentanyl are the same people that are distributing other drugs. They are just giving people other options. So our attack on fentanyl is nearly the same as other drugs. You’ll see that a lot of the seizures that we’re seeing on the interstates from our partners like Colorado State Patrol, the fentanyl pills is mostly what we see coming in with other drugs, mostly meth, sometimes heroin. Nearly every seizure we make, or search warrant, we will see fentanyl in these places where in the past we never did.”
Q: Do the dealers selling fentanyl in Colorado know they are counterfeit products? Do the users?
Reuter: “In the beginning when we first started seeing fentanyl, they did not know. The traffickers were saying, ‘Hey, I have oxycodone pills,’ because they are made to look like that. Now a lot of anecdotal stories that we are hearing are that the retail distributors are saying, ‘Hey, these are really strong.’ That’s an indicator that they know there is fentanyl in them. So a majority of people now, users, know that it’s fentanyl.”
Q: Do the drug manufacturers intend to produce such a potent product?
Reuter: “It wouldn’t be good business if they are killing off their users. It’s not DEA’s belief that they are trying to kill people. I just don’t think that they are realizing how strong these substances are.”
Q: Will we see new DEA-led homicide investigations targeting dealers who sell counterfeit fentanyl?
Reuter: “Those are difficult cases to make. You have to prove a specific person gave the substance that killed them. A lot of times you will see other substances in the person’s system. You have to have the coroner say, ‘Yes, if they have not taken this substance with fentanyl in it, then they would be alive.’ They are very difficult cases to make, but we work them daily here.”
Q: How can Colorado work to prevent fentanyl overdoses?
Reuter: “Educating the public, letting parents know. Kids find these substances on social media. Educating the users: You should not be taking any substance that was not prescribed by a doctor and distributed by a pharmacy. Any pill out there could be a counterfeit pill.”