How fentanyl got to Utah and how many people overdose on the drug

This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

From an alleged poisoning to the pill spree in southern Utah, fentanyl has made headlines in the Beehive State.

But what is the drug behind a murder charge against Kamas broker Kouri Richins for allegedly killing her husband Eric and what is known as “Operation Sour Cream,” and how is it affecting Utah?

Here’s what we know.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid typically used to treat patients with chronic severe pain or severe pain following surgery. It is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times stronger.

This means that the lethal dose of fentanyl is much lower than other opiate drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin. Just a few milligrams of it – the equivalent of a grain of rice – can be fatal to anyone who comes into contact with it.

Most cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdoses, and deaths in the US are related to an illicitly manufactured form of the drug.

It’s sold as a powder and nasal spray, and compressed into tablets that look like prescription opioids. It is also mixed with other drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine to increase their potency.

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the majority of fentanyl involved in overdose deaths enters the US illegally via Mexico.

Court filings from a drug trafficking investigation first reported by The Washington Post describe a St. George-area drug ring that ordered methamphetamine and fentanyl from Mexico, picked it up in California, distributed it in and around St. George, and made the payment to Mexico sent back.

In the Post’s history, Interstate 15, which runs through St. George and connects Los Angeles to much of the country, is referred to as “America’s premier fentanyl artery.”

According to court records, the organization likely smuggled thousands of potentially fatal doses of fentanyl into southern Utah. For example, agents intercepted a call in which the alleged leader of the drug ring received “15,000 buttons” and “15 water,” code words for various illegal drugs. They interpreted that as 15,000 fentanyl tablets and 15 pounds of methamphetamine.

The DEA recently announced the results of “Operation Last Mile,” which targeted individuals associated with the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels responsible for the last mile of fentanyl and methamphetamine distribution.

According to a press release, between May 1, 2022 and May 1, 2023, the operation resulted in 3,337 arrests and the confiscation of nearly 44 million fentanyl pills and more than 6,500 pounds of fentanyl powder.

As a result, nearly 193 million fatal doses of fentanyl have been removed from communities across the country.

The DEA’s Rocky Mountain Field Division, which covers Utah, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, linked 60 cases to the Sinaloa cartel and 12 to the Jalisco cartel.

The department seized more than 375,000 fentanyl tablets and 25 pounds of powder, equivalent to more than 865,000 potentially fatal doses.

The DEA could not provide country-specific numbers.

According to the state’s crime lab, pills are more common in Utah. According to an annual report, about 60% of the fentanyl samples sent to the lab in 2020 were counterfeit pills.

According to spokesman Sgt., the Utah Highway Patrol seized 6,125 tablets in 2020. Cameron Roden. The state agency seized about 22 times as many pills in 2021 as the number rose to 139,568.

There was another big spike in 2022 when state police officers seized 617,125 pills. That’s an increase of 431%.

The Utah Highway Patrol has also seized several pounds of powder in recent years — 3.2 pounds in 2020, 17 in 2021 and 14.11 in 2022.

Fentanyl is killing Utahns at an alarming and rapidly increasing rate, according to the state’s Drug Monitoring Initiative report.

25 people overdosed and died of fentanyl in 2010, according to the state coroner.

This number saw slight increases and decreases through 2015, and then jumped to 45 in 2016. It remained stable again until 2018 and then started to rise rapidly.

In 2020, nearly 120 people died from a fentanyl overdose.

Between 2015 and 2020, fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by nearly 400%.

An annual report on total illicit drug use in 2021 said fentanyl was the “top reason” for a rising number of drug-related deaths.

The report adds that “opioids in general continue to pose the greatest drug-related threat to life in Utah, primarily caused by illegally manufactured fentanyl imported into the United States by Mexican transnational criminal organizations.”

Like the opioid epidemic and heron epidemic, fentanyl is devastating every part of the country, regardless of socioeconomic status.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health found that in 2021, more affluent areas had a higher number of fentanyl overdose deaths, while the least affluent areas of the county had a higher death rate per 100,000 people.

In Utah, the potent drug is now rooted in a complex story about Summit County’s wealth, a disagreement over a $2 million home purchase and a disputed estate.

The Utah Department of Health offers training on fentanyl and naloxone as part of its violence and injury prevention program, said Joel Johnson, a department spokesman.

Naloxone, sometimes better known by the brand name Narcan, is a life-saving drug that, if given in time, can reverse an overdose of fentanyl and other opioids.

DHHS is also working to collect seizure data information, Johnson said, and employs epidemiologists to collect and interpret overdose data.

Utah is launching a fentanyl test strip campaign to educate people who use substances and their friends and family about the need to test pill or drug dosages for fentanyl, Johnson added.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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