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Illegal fentanyl use, ODs worry officials

Llano County law enforcement agencies are investigating an influx of illegally made synthetic drugs possibly containing fentanyl that have contributed to six overdoses and at least one death in recent weeks.

According to a media release from Llano County officials, law enforcement officers recovered illegal drugs at several of the overdose locations. At first, the drugs appeared to be pharmaceutical narcotic tablets, but preliminary work has determined they were made outside of legitimate laboratories. Officials said the tablets also contained substances other than those found in legally manufactured drugs.

The seized drugs are suspected to contain fentanyl, which, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than drugs such as morphine.

The Llano Police Department, Llano County Sheriff’s Office, Llano County District Attorney’s Office, and a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force are investigating the cases and fentanyl distribution.

“Our office mainly focuses on the prosecution of drug offenses,” said 33rd/424th District Attorney Sonny McAfee. “However, fentanyl is such a powerful and dangerous drug that we are working with law enforcement, other county officials, and anyone else who can help prevent more overdoses and the associated dangers to the public.”

Officials stated that all of the recovered drugs suspected of containing fentanyl were illegally made to look like hydrocodone, which is a legal prescription drug. 

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, fentanyl is a factor in 53 percent of all overdose deaths in the United States, which was about 43,000 deaths in 2020. 

The center added that fentanyl overdose deaths continue to rise, almost doubling annually, as overdose rates connected to other drugs decrease. Most of the people who died from a fentanyl overdose probably did not know they were taking it but rather a less lethal opioid or drug. 

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, a 2-milligram dose of fentanyl is lethal though smaller doses can place the user at a high risk of overdose. Comparatively, 100 milligrams of heroin and 250 milligrams of cocaine are lethal doses.

In May, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott announced he would sign Senate Bill 768 into law, which would make the manufacture and delivery of fentanyl a third-degree felony. 

He pointed out that the state has experienced a surge in the illegally manufactured drug coming across the Mexico-United States border. In the first four months of 2021, the Texas Department of Public Safety seized about 95 pounds, or 21.5 million lethal doses, of fentanyl in the state. In all of 2020, the DPS seized 11 pounds of the drug.

That represents an 800 percent increase in the first four months of 2021 compared to all 12 months of 2020.

“Lives are at stake as dangerous drugs like fentanyl pour into our communities at an astonishing rate, and we must act now to crack down on the proliferation of this deadly drug,” the governor said during a May 27 news conference. “We must do more to combat this crisis, which is why I intend to sign legislation that will create a specific felony offense for the manufacturing or delivery of fentanyl.”

In Llano County, officials said drug traffickers and sellers often use illegal fentanyl to intensify the effects of other narcotics. They will create pills that look like hydrocodone or oxycontin, both legal, but that contain fentanyl mixed with other drugs.

People can easily overdose on fentanyl-infused drugs, which can result in serious bodily injury or death.

“The public should be aware that the use of fentanyl is a high-risk activity with a much greater chance of overdose, which can be fatal,” said Llano County Attorney Dwain Rogers. “Drugs laced with fentanyl are often mislabeled, and anyone using illicit drugs cannot assume that they know what they are taking. It is quite possible to take fentanyl without the user’s knowledge, resulting in overdose.”

Llano County law enforcement agencies are asking for the public’s help in identifying anyone illegally selling drugs. People can contact the LCSO at 325-247-5767 or the Hill Country Area Crime Stoppers at 1-866-756-8477. All callers remain anonymous.

“Anyone using illicit drugs are obviously endangering their health and safety, and the number of recent overdoses in Llano County due to suspected fentanyl is alarming,” said Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham. “We urge the public to not only be aware of these dangers but take precautions not to make contact with suspected narcotics. Due to the potency of fentanyl, even skin contact can cause adverse reactions. Any persons who believe they may have been exposed to fentanyl should call 9-1-1 immediately.” 

daniel@thepicayune.com