A flood of counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl drove a spike in drug overdose deaths across Oklahoma last year, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

Oklahoma saw 136 overdose deaths from fentanyl in 2020, a nearly 152 percent increase over the previous year, according to preliminary Bureau of Narcotics data. Last year was a record year for fatal drug overdoses in Oklahoma — 1,002 people died, exceeding the previous high of 883 deaths in 2019.

Oklahoma’s increase in deaths echoes a trend that saw fatal overdoses grow by 29.4 percent nationwide between December 2019 and December 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths in Oklahoma increased by 21.8 percent over the same period, according to the report.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics began noticing a growing number of fentanyl deaths in May 2020, when investigators were alerted to four overdoses over a period of about 72 hours, said Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the agency. 

Since then, OBN has arrested nine people who have been charged with first-degree murder in connection to deaths from counterfeit oxycodone pills, as well as trafficking and possession in some cases. 

Some dealers who sold fentanyl-laced pills didn’t know they were counterfeit, Woodward said. 

“In many cases, some of the people who were arrested (were) friends of the ones who died.” he said. “They weren’t strange dealers knowingly pushing a deadly drug on the streets.”

Counterfeit oxycodone pills first began surfacing in Oklahoma around 2014, Woodward said. The pills are manufactured by drug cartels and are often blue in color and stamped to look like a 30-milligram dose of oxycodone. The counterfeit pills are frequently cut with fentanyl, a cheap, potent drug that is much more potent than morphine. 

OBN’s Anti-Heroin Task Force has been investigating nearly two dozen deaths over the past 15 months across the state tied to counterfeit oxycodone. There are likely even more deaths that have gone unreported or that have been prevented with Narcan, Woodward said. While pills are the most common form of distribution, fentanyl is also showing up in methamphetamine and heroin in the state, he said. 

Earlier this month, an OBN investigation led to the arrest of a suspected Oklahoma City drug trafficker and the seizure of about 7,900 fentanyl pills worth nearly $250,000. Investigators believe the man was a major supplier of counterfeit pills in the state. 

The Oklahoma City Police Department has seen an increase in drug possession and distribution arrests over the past year, largely due to counterfeit oxycodone pills, agency spokesman Gary Knight said in an email. According to 2021 patrol records Knight provided to The Frontier, narcotics-related arrests climbed from 102 in January to 148 arrests in April — a peak for the year so far. 

Cherokee County District Attorney Jack Thorp. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Jack Thorp, district attorney for Wagoner, Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah counties, said he’s seen an uptick in cases involving fentanyl-laced drugs. Thorp first became aware of fentanyl in Oklahoma four or five years ago, but said current case levels are the highest he’s seen. 

Out of 19 drug-related deaths in Thorp’s district where an autopsy was performed since June 2020, 11 deaths were caused by methamphetamine, and seven were fentanyl-related, according to data provided to The Frontier by Thorp. In many cases, dealers cut drugs with fentanyl to increase their profit margins, Thorp said. 

Although most opioid-related deaths have trended downward in Oklahoma since 2015, methamphetamine and fentanyl have caused an overall increase in overdoses, said Jeff Dismukes, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

He believes the coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame for last year’s increase in deaths because overdoses often occur in isolation. People also have been less likely to enter residential substance abuse treatments programs during the pandemic, he said.