FARGO — Fake oxycodone pills have been linked to a surge in overdose calls in Fargo, but authorities say recent arrests may put a dent in a problem that is plaguing communities from Minot, N.D., to the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
The Fargo Police Department recently reported on its Facebook page that it responded to 60 calls for service so far this year regarding possible overdoses, with ten of those incidents resulting in deaths.
Of those deaths, seven involved opiates such as fentanyl, two were related to methamphetamine and one was still awaiting autopsy results.
In mid-September, authorities in Minot arrested a 25-year-old Minot man after they seized 5,000 fentanyl pills valued at $350,000 from the man's residence.
It was the largest seizure of fentanyl the Minot area has seen, according to authorities who said many overdoses and deaths that occurred in the Minot area were directly linked to fentanyl.
In late September, Fargo police and other law enforcement agents searched two residences and a hotel in Fargo and seized about 1,400 fentanyl pills that were stamped "M" on one side and "30" on the other, similar to the way oxycodone prescription pain pills are stamped.
Fargo police said several people will likely face state or federal charges in connection with the searches and seized pills.
Opioid users often buy fentanyl pills thinking they are heroin or oxycodone, unaware that fentanyl can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin, Minot police said.
Jessica Schindeldecker, crime prevention and public information officer for the Fargo Police Department, echoed those sentiments.
"Anyone looking to purchase oxycodone pills may not be purchasing what they think they are, and the counterfeit pills have been found to have fentanyl in them, which will cause an overdose," Schindeldecker said.
Local authorities do not know from where the phony oxycodone pills seized in Fargo originated, she said.
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency released a statement in August warning that authorities were seeing a significant increase in counterfeit pills of various types in the Twin Cities area, with the pills entering Minnesota from places like California, Arizona and Mexico. Most of the pills originated in Mexico, the DEA said.
The DEA statement said that in the first seven months of 2020, law enforcement agents in Minnesota seized 46,000 counterfeit pills, nearly four times the number seized in all of 2019.
Emily Murray, public information officer for the DEA's Omaha Division, said a variety of people seek illegal pills, including those who start with a legitimate prescription for something like oxycodone and later become addicted and turn to other sources.
"They may be using the dark web to try to find a substitute to what they're receiving," she said. Drug trafficking organizations make their pills look like legitimate drugs so people may think they're getting the same kind of pills, "but they're in no way the same."
Fargo police said it can be a challenge to obtain enough evidence to bring charges against individuals involved in distributing counterfeit pills, and authorities make a point to remind the public whenever they can that victims of overdose and those who assist them during an overdose are exempt from charges.
"The N.D. immunity law is important to remind people of because it helps provide them protection when they are calling for emergency help involving someone who is experiencing an overdose," Schindeldecker said.
The recent jump in overdose cases and deaths in Fargo is reminiscent of 2016, when the area began seeing large numbers of overdoses and related deaths, mostly connected to opiates.
According to Fargo police statistics, Fargo saw 69 overdose cases in 2016 involving 15 deaths.
In 2017, overdose cases numbered 40, with 20 deaths.
By 2018, cases dropped to 29 and deaths fell to 11, including five related to opiates.
In 2019, there were 34 reported overdoses in Fargo, 10 of them fatal, with nine of the deaths related to opiates.
"The recent seizure of 1,400 (fentanyl/counterfeit pills) will hopefully have a significant impact on future overdoses in our community," the Fargo Police Department said in a Facebook post.
"We will continue to work to investigate these cases and attempt to slow the spread of these dangerous substances in our community," the post said.