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Officials: Potent Painkiller Increasingly in Local Illegal Drug Market

State officials are increasingly concerned about a synthetic opioid drug, 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, being used to produce "cheap counterfeits of Oxycodone, Xanax and Norco."

The painkiller fentanyl, initially used to treat severe pain in cancer patients, was the seventh-most common substance tied to drug-related deaths in Knox and Anderson counties in 2015 and 2014, according to a report issued by the county's Regional Forensics Center earlier this month. In the summer of 2014, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reported hundreds of thousands of counterfeit pills — many containing fentanyl — began entering U.S. drug market.

Last week, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health alert on fentanyl, citing an "increased risk of overdose and fatalities associated with fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills and compounds."

On Monday, state officials Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health; Doug Varney, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; and David Purkey, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security issued their own joint warning about the drug, which can be inhaled, injected, absorbed through the skin or vaporized.

Its effect on the central nervous and respiratory systems is so powerful, those who overdose can quickly lose the ability to breathe and die if emergency care isn't immediately provided, health officials said.

In addition, officials said, fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, cocaine or other drugs "to increase the euphoric effects of those drugs," and is being sold as counterfeit heroin. In April, a Knox County judge sentenced a middleman in a drug deal to eight years in prison on a charge of facilitation of second-degree murder as part of a plea agreement in the October 2014 overdose death of a 20-year-old heroin addict given heroin laced with fentanyl.

Gwyn said TBI is seeing "more and more" drugs made in clandestine labs containing fentanyl.

"The counterfeiters producing very real-looking imitations of legitimate pain-relief drugs don't emphasize quality control in their manufacturing, so one fake pill may be more deadly than another," said Gwyn, whose office has issued repeated warnings about the counterfeit drugs. "Anyone with knowledge of fake pills being sold in any community should immediately contact local law enforcement. One call might save one life — or many."

Tennessee also has a toll-free "redline" — 1-800-889-9789 — people struggling with opioid dependence can call for help.

"Fentanyl is deadly, and those who are using or selling it illegally are now at real risk of killing themselves or others," Dreyzehner said. "We strongly encourage Tennesseans with substance use disorders to recognize the importance of avoiding drugs from illegal sources and to seek help now to end a dependency. Tomorrow may be too late."

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