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Tennessee Issues Warning about Deadly Drug

A powerful legal painkiller has proven so deadly in Tennessee, the state issued a public health advisory about it on Thursday.

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, along with the state's health department and Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said overdose deaths associated with the anesthetic fentanyl are increasing statewide.

It's not only because the drug itself is being purposely abused, but also because it's become increasingly common for law enforcement to find it in counterfeit versions of pain pills such as oxycodone or benzodiazepines such as Xanax. People buying these drugs on the street and taking them are unprepared for the strength of fentanyl - 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine - and can more easily overdose, law enforcement has said.

"A few months ago, we reported 1,451 people lost their lives to drug overdoses in Tennessee in 2015 alone," said Dr. John Dreyzehner, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, in the advisory.

"Counterfeit drugs present a terrible risk, and an overdose can occur the very first time a person tries an illicit drug. This used to be a relatively rare tragedy. Now, with counterfeit drugs potentially made with more deadly and concentrated ingredients, the risk is dire. Please warn friends and family members using illegally obtained drugs that even one pill use can be deadly."

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn said his agents are encountering fentanyl more and more.

"Our crime labs across the state routinely analyze pills that look like one thing but actually contain another," Gwyn said. "In a growing number of those cases, the pills contain fentanyl," which he called "a life-threatening danger."

It also poses a danger to law enforcement officers, said Knoxville Police Department Deputy Chief Gary Holliday, who said officers responding to calls can absorb the drug through the skin. KPD has circulated pictures of the drug to familiarize officers with it.

Tennessee has a toll-free hot line for people struggling with addiction issues: 800-889-9789.

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