Rising Overdose Deaths Caused from Counterfeit or Laced Prescription Opioids

Overdose deaths continue to be on the rise and many of those deaths occur from individuals consuming counterfeit or laced prescription opioids.

Prescription pain relief

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Opioid based pain relievers such as Morphine, Oxycodone, and Hydrocodone were created for doctors to help their patients manage severe to chronic pain. Although they can be helpful for pain, they also mimic the euphoric feeling produced by another addictive opioid: heroin. Far too often, patients become addicted to these pharmaceutical opioids and begin obtaining them elsewhere, outside of a doctor’s care.

Opioid crisis

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are, after marijuana (and alcohol), the most commonly abused substances by Americans 14 and older.“ While heroin is extremely dangerous and has definite negative connotations associated with its use, prescription opioid abuse is more common and sadly, often overlooked. Additionally, misusing prescription pain pills can lead to heroin use as well. The NID notes “about 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin and “about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids”.

Rising overdose deaths

Opioid abuse has been declared a crisis throughout Utah and the nation, yet the amount of individuals using and overdosing continues to rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state: “Drug overdose deaths and opioid-involved deaths continue to increase in the United States. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involve an opioid. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and heroin) quadrupled. From 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses. 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.”

Fentanyl

While many overdose deaths occur from a person intentionally misusing or overusing a prescription drugs, other deaths are caused by taking counterfeit pills made to look like authentic pain relievers or pills laced with high amounts of other substances. One commonly used ingredient in laced or counterfeit pills is a synthetic opioid known as fentanyl. Fentanyl is similar to other prescription opioids such as OxyContin and morphine, however the effects of fentanyl are “50 to 100 times more potent” according to the NID. That potency increase comes at a price though. The NID affirms “Among more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl ( . . . ).”

Laced or phony pills

Sadly, addiction does not allow the danger of fentanyl in prescription drugs to stop individuals from consuming pills bought off the street. Some may think they are doing their due diligence by verifying the pill’s size, color, and imprint on pill checking websites, however many counterfeit prescription drugs on the street look just like original. The only way to know for sure what is contained in a pill is to obtain the medication with a valid prescription. Since that is unlikely to happen for addicts, drug treatment and rehabilitation is encouraged to help those fighting addiction.

Overdose reversal

Loved ones of addicts unable to successfully rehabilitate are encouraged to obtain life saving measures to save their family member or friend should an overdose occur. When a person overdoses on opioids, their respiratory system slows down to a stop which can quickly lead to death. Naloxone, known commercially as Narcan reminds the brain to signal the lungs to breathe. Previously obtainable with a prescription, the nasal spray Narcan is now available over the counter. Walgreens has just announced that nearly 80,000 of their stores across the nation will now be stocked with the lifesaving medication. Until more can be done to prevent mass opioid abuse, at least there are things in place to reduce the lives lost to this dangerous epidemic.

Opioids and Benzos – A Deadly Combination

Opioids and Benzos- two highly addictive drugs that can be obtained illegally or with the help of a physician can be a deadly combination when used together.

Opioids

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Opioids are a type of drug that binds to the opioid receptors in the body, reducing pain while increasing a sense of euphoria. Opioids can come in illegal forms such as heroin or fentanyl or they can be prescribed legally by a doctor. These prescription opioids include the popular:

• OxyContin;
• Morphine;
• Vicodin; and
• Codeine.

Opioids by themselves have caused tens of thousands of overdose deaths last year alone. They are highly addictive, quickly leading to dependency. They who are dependent on opioids commonly misuse them in extreme quantities. Misuse or overuse of opioids can result in respiratory distress and death.

Benzodiazepines (Benzos)

Another “feel good sedative”, Benzodiazepines are “a type of prescription sedative commonly prescribed for anxiety or the help with insomnia“ according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The go on to describe common [benzos] as “Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin.” Just like opioids, benzos can sedate a person too much, decreasing their breathing to dangerous levels. Combined, Opioids and Benzos are too often deadly.

A deadly combination

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On their website, NIH also states “More than 30 percent of overdoses involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines”. With both drugs meant to sedate, it is highly likely that the combined effect of both drugs being used simultaneously can suppress breathing to the point of stopping completely. The respiratory system of users is so relaxed, it forgets to intake oxygen.

Help for those with addictions

Those who know individuals struggling with an opioid addiction, inform them of the dangers of mixing benzos with opioids even under a doctor’s care. Those fighting addiction are encouraged to instead look at “effective medications [that] exist to treat opioid use disorders [such as] methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.” Loved ones of addicts should consult with a doctor about obtaining the drug naloxone to reverse an overdose should the unthinkable happen when they are present.

Is Possession of a Photo of Mexican Folk Saint Jesus Malverde Reasonable Suspicion of Drug Activity in Utah?

Jesus Malverde, a Mexican folk saint known as the “Narco-saint” is celebrated by many individuals including those involved in drug trafficking; for this reason, any memorial item of him may be add to an officer’s reasonable suspicion of drug activity.

Jesus Malverde, the good bandit

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Jesus Malverde is a folk saint believed by some to have lived in Mexico in the late 19th century. Although he is known by most Roman Catholics throughout Mexico, he is not officially recognized as a saint by the church. Malverde was said to have been a “good bandit”, who through his short life was responsible for regularly stealing from the rich to give back to his deprived fellow countrymen. Following his death, many who memorialize Malverde as a saint credit their ability to heal from injuries and sickness or find lost items to his spiritual influence.

Twisted folklore

Just as any folklore, the story of Jesus Malverde has slowly become distorted, with some using his image and name for immoral purposes. Over the years, drug traffickers began to claim Malverde had regularly protected drug lords such as El Chapo as well as the Mexican drug cartel from being arrested or killed. A shrine to honor Jesus Malverde was erected in his birthplace of Sinaloa, Mexico and was funded almost entirely by the drug cartel. Memorabilia including photos, statues, jewelry, candles, and even soap has been created with Malverde’s name or photo for worshipers to purchase. Unfortunately, because the drug cartel has usurped Malverde’s name, being in possession of any of those collectibles could give authorities reasonable suspicion that someone is involved in drug activity.

Targeted for religious icon

Photo by: Drew Stephens

Since Jesus Malverde’s name was tainted by drug cartel, anyone sporting souvenirs with Malverde’s image or name could be watched more closely by law enforcement. There have been several drug cases in which Jesus Malverde memorabilia helped convince law enforcement of possible drug activity. Two that took place in Utah included:

• U.S. V. Lopez-Gutierrez. Lopez was pulled over in Cedar City, Utah for a traffic violation when police “observed one picture of Jesus Malverde affixed to the dashboard and another hanging from Lopez’s necklace. The officer recognized the images of Jesus Malverde, who is considered a patron saint by some drug traffickers.” The officer observed other suspicious items such as an air freshener, rose, and three cell phones; thus proceeding to further question Lopez. After a K9 alerted on the car, a search of the vehicle turned up distribution amounts of methamphetamine.

• State of Utah V. Alverez. Alverez was seen stopping at an apartment complex, only to return moments later. Police became suspicious and waited for Alverez to return the next day. After he returned and reentered the complex, an officer “observed a facsimile of Jesus Malverde” and that “ through interviews he had conducted, Jesus Malverde was the patron saint of drug dealing.” When Alverez returned to the vehicle, officer discussed his lack of vehicle insurance, questioned him about drug use, and then forcefully made Alverez open his mouth where he was hiding 15 rubber balloons filled with illegal drugs.

Reasonable suspicion

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Utah Code 77-7-15 states, “a peace officer may stop any person in a public place when he has a reasonable suspicion to believe he has committed or is in the act of committing or is attempting to commit a public offense and may demand his name, address and an explanation of his actions.” Reasonable suspicion differs from probable cause in that with reasonable suspicion, there doesn’t need to be evidence of a crime, only a hunch by a trained law enforcement officer. If an officer sees drugs in a car through a window or a door, that officer would have probable cause to search the vehicle. If the same officer instead saw an item such as a picture of Jesus Malverde in the vehicle who is known to be worshipped by many, including drug traffickers, the officer could question the suspect under the claim that the photo added to his reasonable suspicion of possible drug activity.

Religious persecution

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . )”. Unless a religion give a valid cause for alarm such as a direct threat to the safety of the public, the separation of church and state should prohibit the government from determining what religion (or saint) citizens are allowed to worship without being accused of wrong-doing. By claiming souvenirs of Saint Jesus Malverde point to an increased chance of drug trafficking, the question of religious prosecution arises. Just because some who worship a religion or saint have criminal histories, not all who practice that religion or worship should be implicated as well. Just as not all Muslims are potential terrorists and not all white Christians are supremacists, it is unfair and unconstitutional to determine a person’s character or likelihood to commit a crime based on their choice of a religious icon.