Fake opioids are not only unpredictable and potentially more deadly than legitimate pills, they also pose challenges for prosecutors.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the number of counterfeit pills, or analogue drugs, has grown over recent years.
“When you affect the molecular structure it really can unstabilize it, and you really don’t know how it’s going to react. That’s why we’ve seen an uptick in overdoses in the state,” said Micheal Jones, public information officer with TBI.
Data provided by TBI showed in 2013, their organization received 12 submissions of fake opioids. As of December 13, 2017, they have had 453 submissions.
Jones said most of the submissions were fentanyl or fentanyl derivatives.
So far in 2017, the TBI lab in Memphis has received 58 samples of the fake drugs.
“You have people in labs taking opioids, fentanyl, just altering the chemical structure of them a little bit, moving a molecule here, moving the chemical structure. It alters the substance chemically structurally, and then it’s no longer an illegal substance,” said Jones.
Jones explained, you could have a legal substance that is not scheduled as an illegal narcotic, but yet it is just as deadly, if not deadlier.
The issue comes after drug manufacturers mess with the chemical structure of a legitimate and scheduled drug. Once the drug is altered, it becomes a different substance, and does not fall under the state’s current schedule of controlled substances.
“It’s very frustrating from the law enforcement community because we want to be able to catch these offenders and we want to be able to hold them accountable under the maximum amount that the law allows,” said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.
Prosecution can get challenging since the fakes are not exactly illegal, compounding on the already, far-reaching opioid epidemic.
“The enforcement piece of that, how do we stop these people and hold them accountable? It’s a moving target. We went through that couple years ago, if you recall, with synthetic marijuana,” said Weirich.
In the meantime, the DA explained there may be other ways to prosecute offenders.
“Oftentimes these dealers, in addition to having perhaps an analogue drug in their possession, they’re also going to have other substances, or they’re going to have committed other crimes. They’re going to be in possession of weapons. They’re going to have done other things that are violations of the law. It may be that we have other charges that we can go after someone with but not able to prosecute them for the possession of the analogue drugs,” Weirich explained.
She went on to say the legislature needs to help fill the hole.
“Legislation that would enable us, no matter the sinister creators of these come up with, in the basements where they’re created, no matter what possible combination of substances that they can come up with, that we would have laws in the state of Tennessee to catch them, and to prosecute them and to hold them accountable,” said Weirich when asked what she would like to see changed.
The district attorney said she is not aware of any ongoing legislative efforts to address the issue, but the DA’s Conference is looking at raising the penalty for possession of fentanyl.
The TBI said they are working with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, sending information on what is coming into TBI labs.