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DEA warns of increase in fake prescription pills containing fentanyl, meth

In Denver, the number of fentanyl-related deaths has risen over the last few years, according to the The Denver Office of the Medical Examiner's 2020 annual report.

DENVER — Last week, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a PSA warning Americans that there has been an increase "in the lethality and availability" of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine. 

The PSA is the first in six years on the matter, and the agency says more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized so far this year nationwide -- more than the last two years combined. 

In Denver, the number of fentanyl-related deaths has risen over the last several years, according to the The Denver Office of the Medical Examiner's 2020 annual report.

Meanwhile the city, as well as several groups, are working to help with testing drugs for fentanyl. 

Credit: Mat Gaskins
Narcan nasal spray sits on a table at Vivent Health in Denver, as representatives with it's Lifepoint program demonstrate how fentanyl testing kits are used.

Effort from the city

In an emailed response to 9NEWS Thursday, a spokesperson for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment explained that the presence of fentanyl has become "increasingly prevalent in the drug supply in Denver." 

"We have seen fentanyl 'laced' into other drugs, but sometimes a drug that is sold as something else only includes fentanyl. We most commonly see fentanyl in Denver included in fake 30 mg oxycodone pills. We can also confirm cases of heroin that contain fentanyl (as well as what appears to be heroin, but only includes fentanyl), and, more recently, what appears to be cocaine in fact being composed of either fentanyl and lidocaine, or just fentanyl," a statement read in part. 

That spokesperson adds that the department encourages everyone who uses drugs that are not received directly from a pharmacy to utilize harm reduction strategies to reduce risk of overdose.

The department also provides access to fentanyl test strips which can be requested through their website. 

"It’s important for people who use these strips to know that they are not FDA approved for this use, do not indicate the concentrations/doses of fentanyl present, and false positives can be common when testing MDMA or methamphetamine," a statement read in part, which adds that DDPHE and its partners are exploring other strategies to promote community drug checking.

In Denver, they add that they've seen fentanyl in fake oxycodone and heroin for more than a year now, but recently they've seen fentanyl appear in cocaine. 

"It’s also important to note that just because we have not 'confirmed' the presence of fentanyl in other drugs, does not mean that it is not present," the statement read. "Other local jurisdictions have mentioned finding fentanyl in other drugs such as fake Xanax bars, and we know that people and drugs do not stay within county lines."

Credit: Mat Gaskins
Sterile water is part of the testing kits that Vivent Health's Lifepoint Program distributes.

Other groups help test

Vivent Health Denver's Lifepoint Program is made up of nine outreach workers that go out in a mobile clinic-style fashion to train people on how to use the fentanyl testing kits they distribute, which are used off label for drug testing. 

“We know in Denver that there are individuals who have taken prescription drugs that they’ve purchased from friends, on the street, or believed to have bought in a pharmacy and those drugs have contained fentanyl and have caused accidental overdoses and fatal overdoses in Denver," said Quinn Paton, the Director of Prevention Services at Vivent Health Denver. “Our goal is to provide people with education, resources,  regardless of whether they’re using prescription pills, fake prescription pills, street-bought drugs, party drugs across the board to be able to have that education and to use the resources available to them to prevent an overdose.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also added information to their website about testing drugs for fentanyl. 

“The most important part of our conversations with our clients is letting them guide the conversation and telling us what they’re needing from us. And us providing those safe and secure resources without judgment," said Alisa Baca, an outreach worker at Vivent Health. “That’s what we’re here for – is to meet them where they are and provide them with those resources in whatever capacity that we’re able to meet that need.”

Overall the program, along with others, stresses that users should have naloxone, which quickly reverses an overdose, on hand. 

The Harm Reduction Action Center says they've been giving out fentanyl testing strips since 2018, and also give out naloxone/Narcan to their participants. 

Over the past nine years, the group's executive director Lisa Raville says HRAC participants have saved more than 2,600 lives. 

They also train participants how to use the testing strips. 

Between June 14 and May 1, 2,200 participants have been trained, according to the group, and 40% of participants with positive results reported either using less, or throwing out their drugs entirely.

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