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Opioid overdoses more than triple in Grand Forks amid rise of counterfeit pills

The rising popularity of counterfeit pharmaceutical pills, often laced with cheaper substances such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, represents a new evolution in residents' interaction with

image003.jpg
Example of a counterfeit M30 pill containing fentanyl analogues. This image, provided by the city of Grand Forks, was obtained from the internet and does not represent a locally recovered substance, although similar pills have been found in the community.
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If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact Spectra Health in Grand Forks at 701-757-2100.

Just over halfway through 2021, Grand Forks has already surpassed the record number of opioid overdoses reported to police in a single year, and is on track to have by far its worst year ever.

The dramatic increase is driven by the rising popularity of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, most notably fake M30 oxycodone pills that are laced with fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.

After years of overdoses trending downward in Grand Forks, Michael Dulitz, the opioid response project coordinator for Grand Forks Public Health, said he's frustrated by this new evolution of opioid use.

"I thought we were making a ton of progress with decreases in overdoses over most of the previous years," Dulitz said. "We were trending really in the right direction, particularly with the pandemic in there, and we didn't see a big rise there. So having this come around is really challenging for me and trying to figure out what steps to take."

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The increase in opioid overdoses is in line with national trends, Dulitz said, although he hasn't heard whether other areas of the country can attribute rising numbers to counterfeit pills.

So far in Grand Forks in 2021, there have been 38 opioid overdoses reported to police, including three fatal overdoses. Grand Forks Police Lt. Jeremy Moe said nine of those overdoses can be attributed to the counterfeit M30 pills.

Recent years in Grand Forks include:

  • 2020: 12 overdoses were reported to GFPD, including one fatality.
  • 2019: 16 overdoses, of which three were fatal.
  • 2018: 19 overdoses, of which three were fatal.
  • 2017: 36 overdoses, of which four were fatal.
  • 2016: 28 overdoses, of which three were fatal.

Moe said the police department first began noticing the increase in counterfeit pills more than a year ago. He said it's likely a safe assumption that people who purchase the counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills believe they're buying the authentic pharmaceutical pills.
Dulitz said the rise in the popularity of the counterfeit pills is likely because buyers will pay a premium for pills clearly marked with their chemical contents, such as those prescribed by doctors. In response, illicit drug manufacturers began producing lookalike pills with much cheaper substances – such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogues – and sell them at a markup.

"I would be very suspicious of anything that's a blue pill that has an M and a 30 on it if people are buying them from unknown sources or people other than a pharmacist," Moe said.

Dulitz emphasized that the rise in counterfeit pills represents a new evolution of drug use in the community.

"We were over-prescribing all these years, so we made a big reversal in prescribing and sort of under-prescribing, and that's when heroin came about, and things like that," Dulitz said. "And now we're seeing just another iteration, moving into fentanyl and now into counterfeit fentanyl pills. It's really an ever-evolving environment that we're in, with people and their interaction with opioids, that is very challenging for us."

The greatest challenge in combating counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills is that abusing pills is much easier to conceal than other forms of opioid abuse that might be more social, and many people might develop a pill habit in isolation, Dulitz said.

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That can make it much more difficult to reach people who are struggling, get them into treatment programs, and get them Naloxone when they need it.

For anyone who is struggling with addiction, Dulitz urges them to reach out to a treatment program, even if it's just to receive a dose of Naloxone. He suggested Spectra Health in Grand Forks, which he said takes a very people-centric approach to addiction care.

As opioid overdoses have continued to rise, Grand Forks Public Health has worked to make Naloxone more available throughout the community. Public health workers will distribute doses of Naloxone through the city's syringe service program, and Naloxone can also be purchased at an increasing number of local pharmacies.

"We just want to get it sufficiently into the hands of people that are going to be most likely to use it," Dulitz said. "We would rather have somebody get reversed as soon as possible, rather than having harm come from being without oxygen for any period of time, or something like that."

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