Chicago’s drug addiction epidemic has taken a dangerous new turn, warns the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration with skyrocketing sales of counterfeit prescription pills containing the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Mexican drug cartels are increasingly manufacturing pills containing fentanyl, which is at least 30 times more potent than heroin and is fatal in doses as low as two milligrams.
“It’s everywhere,” says Robert Bell, head of the DEA’s Chicago field division. “They are available in street offerings, for online purchase, in schools. It is very scary.
Unsuspecting people think they are getting a pharmaceutical grade pill like OxyContin or Xanax, Bell says.
“The cartels are exploiting the opioid pill problem,” he says.
This summer, the DEA warned Lollapalooza viewers to avoid buying pills there because of the dangerous fakes. Bell says there is a large market for them – from recreational users to opioid addicts who buy drugs at the outdoor drug markets on the West Side.
Mexican cartels have been increasing sales of fentanyl in the United States since about 2015. Chinese criminal networks are the main suppliers of fentanyl to the cartels, according to the DEA.
Until recently, most of this fentanyl was mixed with heroin to make it more potent – and more desirable – for regular users. This has led to mass deaths in Chicago which have been attributed to the wrong batches of the potent combination of drugs.
Since 2019, the DEA seizure of fentanyl-containing pills has exploded in Chicago and nationwide. About 9.5 million of these pills have been seized this year across the country, according to the DEA. About 269 kilograms of suspected fentanyl have been seized since October 2020 from the DEA Field Division in Chicago, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
“We’re talking about enough fentanyl to kill millions of people,” Bell says.
Last year, there were 912 overdose deaths in Chicago and 1,387 deaths across Cook County involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Authorities do not know if counterfeit opioid pills are involved.
Across Cook County, there were 446 more overdose deaths last year from natural opiates like heroin, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.