Chicago’s drug addiction epidemic has taken a dangerous new turn, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is warning with skyrocketing sales of counterfeit prescription pills containing the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Mexican drug cartels increasingly are manufacturing the pills with fentanyl, which is at least 30 times more potent than heroin and is fatal in doses of as little as two milligrams.
“It’s everywhere,” says Robert Bell, head of the DEA’s Chicago field division. “They’re available in street deals, for purchase online, in schools. It’s very scary.”
Unsuspecting people think they’re getting a pharmaceutical-grade pill like OxyContin or Xanax, Bell says.
“The cartels are exploiting the opioid pill problem,” he says.
Robert Bell, special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago field office.Pat Nabong / Sun-Times
This summer, the DEA had warned Lollapalooza concertgoers to avoid buying pills there because of the dangerous counterfeits. Bell says there’s a broad market for them — from recreational users to people addicted to opioids who buy drugs in the West Side’s open-air drug markets.
Mexican cartels have been ramping up fentanyl sales in the United States since about 2015. Chinese criminal networks are the primary suppliers of Fentanyl to the cartels, according to the DEA.
Until recently, most of that fentanyl was mixed into heroin to make it more potent — and more desirable — to regular users. It led to mass deaths in Chicago that were attributed to bad batches of the powerful drug combination.
Since 2019, the DEA’s seizure of fentanyl-laced pills has skyrocketed in Chicago and nationally. About 9.5 million such pills have been seized this year across the country, according to the DEA. About 269 kilograms of suspected fentanyl has been seized since October 2020 within the DEA’s Chicago field division, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
“We’re talking about enough fentanyl to kill millions of people,” Bell says.
Last year, there were 912 overdose deaths in Chicago and 1,387 deaths in all of Cook County that involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Officials don’t know whether any involved counterfeit opioid pills.
Throughout Cook County, there were another 446 overdose deaths last year from naturally occurring opiates like heroin, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.