‘We can’t arrest our way out of this’
Staff Writer | December 23, 2021 1:08 AM
COEUR d’ALENE — Counterfeit prescription pills are killing North Idaho residents at an alarming rate.
In a year, the death toll from fentanyl-laced pills has doubled.
“Our citizens are dying from this drug,” Idaho State Police Capt. John Kempf told Kootenai County commissioners this week. “These aren’t suicides. These aren’t intentional overdoses.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
In 2019, there were 24 overdose-related deaths in Kootenai County.
That number spiked in 2020, when 33 people died due to drug overdoses. Of those deaths, eight were fentanyl-related.
A total of 33 people have died due to overdoses in Kootenai County so far this year — with 16 deaths tied to fentanyl, twice as many as the year before.
Among them was a 15-year-old Lake City High School student, who died after taking a counterfeit pill.
Fentanyl pills — called “mexis” or “mexi-blues” — are more accessible than ever, Kempf said.
“Your kids can order fentanyl,” he said. “It is so easy to order these drugs on social media that it would shock you. It shocked me and I’ve been in this game for a long time.”
The pills are stamped to look like prescription narcotics like Oxycontin or Xanax.
Some users smoke the pills, anticipating how their bodies will react to a substance they’ve used before, not realizing what they’re really taking.
“They don’t understand fentanyl is 100 times more potent and the pills are not mixed correctly,” said Kootenai County Coroner Warren Keene.
Keene described individuals who took fentanyl-laced pills in motel bathrooms and collapsed from the drug’s effects before they could walk out, dying in the doorway.
The illicit pills are getting cheaper, said ISP Detective Jess Stennett.
When the pills first began to circulate in North Idaho, Stennett said, they cost about $30 each, on par with legitimate oxycodone.
Over time, supply exploded and prices plummeted. Pills can be had these days for $7 to $10 a pop, Stennett said. Along the Mexican border, they cost 50 cents to a dollar.
Fentanyl has legitimate therapeutic value when manufactured and used correctly, Kempf noted. It’s been used for extreme pain for decades.
“It’s a wonder drug,” Kempf said. “It’s fast-acting and short-lasting.”
But there’s no quality control when it comes to illicit pills.
One pill can have a dose that gets someone high, while another from the same batch contains enough fentanyl to kill the user.
About one in six counterfeit pills circulating in North Idaho contains a lethal dose of fentanyl, the Coeur d’Alene Police Department reported earlier this year.
Kempf pointed to the Memorial Day shooting death of Gabriel R. Casper, a 20-year-old Coeur d’Alene resident, as an example of the far-reaching effects of fentanyl pills.
Two men are facing federal criminal charges in connection with that shooting.
A grand jury indicted 19-year-old Matthew J. Holmberg and 23-year-old Dennen T.G. Fitterer-Usher in late July on charges of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, as well as possession and discharge of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
Three local teens are also facing charges for their roles in the drug deal gone bad.
Police said Casper hatched a plan to steal mexis from Holmberg, a dealer from Spokane.
During a struggle over a duffel bag full of pills, Fitterer-Usher allegedly pulled a handgun and shot Casper in the head, killing him.
Casper’s body was found in the street of a Coeur d’Alene neighborhood.
Kempf said law enforcement followed the pills to their source.
“We took that case all the way down and made arrests at the border in Mexico,” he said.
But stemming the flow of drugs into North Idaho by arresting dealers is only half the battle.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Stennett said.
Education about the dangers of fentanyl is key. That goes for adults as well as minors.
“We’re talking to high school students, teachers, county commissioners — anyone who will listen,” Stennett said.
Kempf noted that an increasing number of drug users are carrying Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, a medication used for emergency treatment of opioid overdose.
Idahoans can access Narcan at a pharmacy without a prescription. For people with Medicaid, Narcan is free from the pharmacy.
“It’s helping them prevent overdose deaths,” Kempf said.
But it’s not always enough. People with significant amounts of fentanyl in their systems might require two or three doses of Narcan to reverse overdose symptoms.
ISP officers carry two doses, Kempf said.
He stressed the dangers of illicit pills. People who think they’re taking legitimate prescription pills are likely taking counterfeits that can kill them, even with Narcan on hand.
“This didn’t come from Walgreens,” Kempf said. “This was not prescribed to your mom or dad. This is something that was made in the jungles of Mexico and you roll the dice when you smoke it.”