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‘Disguised’ fentanyl pills fuel soaring death toll in Las Vegas Valley

Updated April 15, 2021 - 5:53 pm

Las Vegas police said Thursday they have seen an alarming rise in fentanyl overdose deaths in the valley and warned the public that the powerful opioid is regularly “disguised” as a prescription drug.

Metropolitan Police Department Capt. John Pelletier said in 2019 there were 74 fentanyl overdose deaths in Clark County. By 2020, the number rose to 219, representing a 196 percent increase in one year.

“To put it in perspective, in August alone we had 31 deaths,” Pelletier said. “That is a death a day from fentanyl.”

He detailed the grim numbers at a news conference, surrounded by members of a newly created Overdose Response Team consisting of federal and local prosecutors, law enforcement, the Clark County coroner’s office and others. The goal of the response team is to create awareness about how dangerous fentanyl is while coordinating the arrests and prosecutions of those responsible for circulating the lethal opioid in the Silver State.

Pelletier said some victims likely took the drug in the belief it was a legal pharmacy-grade medication.

“If you are not prescribed a drug from a pharmacist and doctor, do not take it,” Pelletier said. “Fentanyl is often disguised as a prescription pill, but it can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine or heroin. People who die from fentanyl believe they are taking a prescription-grade pill but they are taking a street, or pressed, pill that was made who knows where with who knows what. The bottom line is they didn’t know what they were taking.”

The task force said drug overdose deaths overall are up by 30 percent in the valley, from 591 in 2019 to 768 in 2020.

Daniel Neill, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Las Vegas office, said increased availability of fentanyl is due to a “a shift in the drug traffickers.”

“It’s cheaper. It’s easier to make,” he said. “So you are seeing that shift, bringing stuff in, lacing it with hydrocodone, you see it laced with other drugs, and little by little it is making its way into the valley.”

Neill said the creation of the task force presents a valuable tool to combat fentanyl trafficking because it brings different resources together to identify both traffickers and trends. He said an equally important tool in fighting fentanyl deaths is education of the public.

“We’ve got to get the word out and we’ve got to have these conversations,” Neill said, adding “you can’t arrest your way out of this.”

Contact Glenn Puit by email at gpuit@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.

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