Blue pills being traded and sold on the streets of San Diego County are probably responsible for at least four overdose deaths within 24 hours in communities in the northern and eastern parts of the county, sheriff’s officials said.
The pills come with the promise of a painkiller high, a sheriff’s official said, but no one knows what is in the drug, making it especially dangerous.
At a news briefing Thursday afternoon outside Sheriff’s Department headquarters, Undersheriff Michael Barnett said there had been fatal overdoses in Valley Center, Poway, Santee and Lakeside. No information about the victims was released.
Several other nonfatal overdoses were believed to be linked to the drug as well, but it was unclear how many, Barnett said, standing next to enlarged images of the pills. They are scored with an “M” in a box on one side, and a “30" and a line down the center on the other.
“Those pills that you see in those pictures, or pills that look like them, were recovered at each of the scenes,” Barnett said.
The undersheriff said the pills linked to the deadly overdoses are probably counterfeit versions of 30-milligram Oxycodone hydrochloride, known as M-30s or blues.
Illicit versions of the pills are known to contain fentanyl or carfentanil, Barnett said, which can be fatal even in tiny doses.
Fentanyl is an opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, and carfentanil is about 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
Barnett said the source of the pills is still under investigation, and it wasn’t necessarily surprising to find them spread across the north and east parts of the county.
“We don’t know the initial source of supply [or] who made these,” Barnett said. “These pills are commonly made in people’s homes, with pill presses ... and if someone gets the recipe wrong [with fentanyl], it turns it into a lethal medicine.”
There is recent precedent for batches of pills tainted by fentanyl and carfentanil causing a rash of overdoses locally. In March, federal authorities arrested 14 alleged gang members and associates accused of several drug crimes, including the sale of carfentanil-laced pills disguised as prescription pills.
At least three people overdosed, including a woman who died, from the same tainted batch in August 2017, according to federal authorities.
On Monday, a Chula Vista man was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for dealing fentanyl that led to five nonfatal overdoses on Dec. 7, 2017, in Alpine. Those who overdosed on the drug — including two people revived by naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses — believed they were using cocaine.
“Any pill purchased without a prescription should be considered unsafe for consumption,” Barnett said Thursday.
The undersheriff said there were 273 unintentional pharmaceutical deaths in San Diego County in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. There were 253 such deaths in 2016.
He said anyone looking to get rid of pills that were not prescribed to them, and especially those looking to get rid of pills that might be tainted, can drop them off anonymously at drop boxes located at all Sheriff’s Department substations in the county.
Anyone with information about the mysterious pills was asked to call Crime Stoppers anonymously at (888) 580-8477.
Riggins and Winkley write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.