Law enforcement officials nationwide say fentanyl, a highly potent, synthetic opioid, is being used to make counterfeit prescription pain pills with lethal results.

The round of felony drug charges announced last week by the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office included the seizure of 60 fentanyl pills made to look like oxycodone prescription pain pills, said Capt. Craig Dancy, who heads the sheriff’s office’s narcotics unit.

Dancy said the pills were seized when Trisha Marie Nelson, 44, of Country Square Drive, Wilkesboro, was arrested in October on methamphetamine trafficking and conspiracy charges. He said a pill press was used to make the counterfeit oxycodone.

Fentanyl is better known as a dangerous addition to heroin — sometimes with and sometimes without the user’s knowledge—to increase its euphoric effects.

Dancy said awareness of this has limited prevalence of heroin in Wilkes.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever similar to morphine but far more potent. A rise in overdose deaths from heroin containing illegally made fentanyl has been reported in much of the country.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is legal for treating severe pain, especially after surgery. It’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said pharmaceutical fentanyl is sometimes diverted for misuse but most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose and death in the U.S. are linked to illegally-made fentanyl.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse said synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, are the drugs most often involved in drug overdose deaths in the U.S. A lethal dose of fentanyl is estimated to be about two milligrams, but can vary based on a person’s body size, tolerance, amount of previous usage and other factors.

Federal authorities say Mexican drug cartels are making mass quantities of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl.

Individuals in the U.S. also make them with hand-held pill presses that compress fentanyl powder into pills imitating legitimate prescription products.

They’re often dyed blue and stamped to look like 30 milligram oxycodone.

Based on a sampling of tablets seized nationwide between January and March 2019, DEA found that 27% contained potentially lethal doses of fentanyl.

Dancy said illegal drug dealing with tablets containing fentanyl probably occurs more often than local law enforcement officers realize.

The Wilkes Sheriff’s Office reported 32 drug overdose cases in 2019 and 35 as of mid-December this year.

The sheriff’s office reported 11 overdose deaths in 2019 and five in 2020 in Wilkes, but these totals are incomplete due to pending autopsies.

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