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Recent fentanyl seizure shows cartels are getting better at deception

United States Attorney William Ihlenfeld along with members of local law enforcement held a press conference from the Morgantown Public Safety building Wednesday morning to warn the community of increasingly deceptive fentanyl pills found in the area.

“The reason we want to talk about it is because of the creativity in the ways that drug cartels are now sending fentanyl here to the United States,” Ihlenfeld said.

Ihlenfeld said the latest trend with fentanyl production is pressing it into a pill form and stamping the pills to make them look like other types of pharmaceuticals. 

“There is not precise dosing, there is not quality control,” he said.  “It’s not like you would have in a pharmaceutical environment or in a laboratory environment here in the United States.”

The press conference Wednesday was not only to remind the community of the continuing threat of fentanyl, but to warn them that the cartels making and transporting the deadly drug are getting better at disguising it. 

The Mon Metro Drug Task Force (MMDTF) recently developed intelligence that a large supply of drugs was coming into the Morgantown area from California. 

“Due to the intelligence that was developed and their quick action they were able to obtain a search warrant and seized a large quantity of methamphetamine, cocaine, powder fentanyl and fentanyl in pill form,” Ihlenfeld said.

What was seized in pill form “was some of the best quality of pills that we have seen,” he continued.  These pills were stamped and reported to be oxycodone.

Officers were able to get around a pound of the new pills in the recent seizure and want the public to see exactly what it is that is coming here and what to be on the lookout for.

The investigation is still ongoing and a few more steps need to be taken before an official announcement of charges related to the seizure will be made.

Pills of similar quality and color have also recently been seen in other states like Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., but this is the first time law enforcement has seen them here in West Virginia.

In the past, Ihlenfeld said counterfeit pills might have crumbled a little bit and the stamp on the pill might not have been as crisp.  

“That’s not the case with these,” he said.  “To take it one step further, these pills are part of a new trend that we’re seeing that they are candy colored.  They have all the colors of the rainbow on these pills.”

Ihlenfeld said this is just another marketing tactic used by cartels to deceive the public into thinking the pills are something they are not.

“The cartels are deceptive.  They are diabolical and they are deceptive. And they are exploiting what we have come to be comfortable with here in the United States. And they are particularly exploiting younger people,” he said.

Morgantown Chief of Police Eric Powell said, “This is just a very small example of how effective our task force is in this area – at doing things like getting these kinds of things off the street.”

Powell said that the recent seizure and other task force seizures are due to joint efforts of officers from University Police, MPD, the Mon County Sheriff’s Department, Granville Police and West Virginia State Police.

“We’re all working together with federal agents, working cases day in, day out, and we’re trying our best to have an impact on this growing problem,” he said.

“The Morgantown Police Department truly recognizes that this is a very impactful thing that is going on in our communities.  We’re really trying our best and working our hardest to make sure that we stop it from happening.”

Powell said a lot of the cases MMDTF works on don’t get a lot of press or attention because of the intensity, size and scope of the investigations they undertake.

“We are out there working, we are out there doing something even if it’s not on the front page of the paper,” he said.  “We are having an impact and it’s a positive one.”

Ihlenfeld said that while law enforcement and international diplomacy are important players in stopping the crisis, education and spreading the word will be the key to slowing this down.

Fentanyl is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States among those ages 18-45.  In that age range, fentanyl causes more deaths than car accidents, more deaths than COVID, and more deaths than gun violence, Ihlenfeld said.  

Last year approximately 107,000 Americans died of drug poisonings – and 70,000 of those deaths were caused by fentanyl, he said.  “It far surpasses any other drug as far as the threat that is posed.”

West Virginia University student and co-chair of Mountaineer Fentanyl Education Task Force (MFETF) Chairman Azeem Khan said the WVU-based group is working hard to educate students and the community about the dangers of fentanyl.  

“Seventy-thousand [people] would fill up all of Milan Puskar Stadium and almost fill the Coliseum as well,” Khan said in reference to the number of people killed by fentanyl last year.

Khan said he also believes one of the most powerful tools in dealing with this crisis is education and wants to make sure every student knows “one pill can kill,” he said.  “These drugs don’t come with ingredient lists and any time they take any sort of counterfeit pill, they are risking their life.”

College is a time in many students’ lives where they want to experiment, and Khan said he has heard from many students that “they want to get high, but they don’t want to die.”

“Unfortunately in the world we live in today,” he said, “with any counterfeit pill that’s a risk you’re taking.”

Ihlenfeld said cartels have learned how to exploit our comfortability in certain areas – like our comfort level with taking pills and exploiting social media platforms by marketing pills like oxycodone, Xanax, and Adderall that actually contain fentanyl.

“They’re selling it on Snapchat, they are selling it on TikTok, and other social media platforms where young people spend a lot of time,” Ihlenfeld said.  “They are exploiting the comfort level young people have with purchasing products through social media.”

The federal attorney said based on what he has seen, “I would assume that any pill that I got that wasn’t from a legitimate source – prescribed by a doctor through a pharmacist or maybe from the grocery store – that it probably has fentanyl in it.  It is that prevalent.”

Law enforcement has been seeing fentanyl in its purest form as well as being cut with other substances including cocaine, methamphetamine and other substances.

Ihlenfeld warned that as long as the base chemicals used to make the deadly drug continue to come from China into Mexico for manufacture, the amounts they can make are unlimited.