AUSTIN, Texas — A lethal drug is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate, and law enforcement is warning the public to pay attention.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says the lethal drug has existed for years, but its presence in fake prescription pills and illicit drugs is vastly growing.
"[There is a] significant nationwide surge in counterfeit pills that are mass-produced by criminal drug networks in labs, deceptively marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and are killing unsuspecting Americans," according to a public safety alert issued by the DEA in September, its first alert in six years.
Families across the country are feeling the devastation from the impacts of this drug.
Most recently, the family of Jake Ehlinger announced that the late University of Texas football player died of an accidental overdose after taking Xanax laced with toxic drugs, including fentanyl.
California resident Matt Capelouto lost his daughter, Alex, in 2019, just two days before Christmas, due to counterfeit oxycodone laced with fentanyl.
"You are just in utter shock," said Capelouto. "No matter how a child is lost, it is not normal to go in this order and you compound that with the sudden loss of a child, something completely out of the blue."
Capelouto is now president of Drug Induced Homicide, a nonprofit trying to bring awareness to the fentanyl crisis and hold people accountable for the creation and distribution of the drug.
While he knows his daughter made a bad decision taking drugs, he believes that had her pill been pure oxycodone, she would still be alive today, and so would other people in her situation.
"This is is not an overdose. My daughter was lethally poisoned," Capelouto said. "All these people under a normal drug market might have taken drugs, whether right or wrong, but not died. And now all these people are dying from that."
DEA lab analyses reveal that two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose. For perspective, a lethal dose is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.
The Centers of Disease Control reported 93,000 people died of a drug overdose last year. Fentanyl is the primary driver of this increase in overdose deaths.
Drug overdoses in Travis County rose by 36% in 2020, according to the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA).
DEA Deputy Special Agent in Charge for the Houston Division, Antonio Hubbard explained Texas is a hotspot for fentanyl and other drugs because of its proximity to the border.
Largely due to social media, Hubbard said drug distributors are getting more counterfeit prescription drugs into the hands of children and teens.
"The problem that we have and are starting to see more of is kids. You know, high school and college-aged students, young adults, who are taking these thinking that it's something that they're studying for an exam and not knowing if they're counterfeit and dying," Hubbard said.
The DEA continues to crack down on drug distribution within the U.S. However, Hubbard said parents and the community need to be aware of the likelihood any drug could have fentanyl in it and the increased accessibility of the drug.
"These pills are being offered on social media, e-commerce, the dark web," Hubbard said. "You can buy drugs from the comfort and convenience of your bedroom at home, so this makes our mission a lot more difficult."
Capelouto discovered that his daughter contacted her dealer through Snapchat, who then delivered the drugs to her home. He believes one of the most naïve thing a parent can think is "it is not my child," and is urging parents to have discussions with their children about this issue and the dangers of social media before it happens.
"The whole goal of the cartels is to get everybody hooked on fentanyl. Fentanyl is highly addictive and there's too many benefits from it. It's cheap. It's easy to smuggle in this country. It can make a lot more money on it. Unfortunately, the people that are dying, including my daughter, are just looked at as collateral damage," Capelouto said.
While the nation battles a migrant crisis at the Texas-Mexico border, Hubbard said he is often asked if that has played into the growth of this drug in the country.
"Drug cartels are going to use whatever to their advantage, whatever they have an opportunity to use, they are going to use it," Hubbard said.
Capelouto is also pushing for changes in how overdose cases are handled, including looking at these cases in a criminal capacity and find the dealer who distributed the drug.
In Texas, drug addiction recovery advocates are urging state and federal leaders to provide more funding to support overdose prevention, including funding for fentanyl test strips, which allow people to test drugs for fentanyl before taking them.
"Punishing people for drug use is not the answer. The answer is public health policies that inform how we handle and how we support people who are using drugs," said Gabby Libretti, drop-in center coordinator, THRA.
As the nation battles a growing drug epidemic, more resources are coming available to protect the community.
The DEA launched the "One Pill Can Kill" public awareness campaign to bring awareness to counterfeit prescription pills. To learn more about it, visit this website.
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