ND: Fargo police warn of fentanyl-laced pills after sharp rise in overdose responses

Officers are investigating drug trafficking that may be linked to nationwide dealers, chief says

FARGO — The Fargo Police Department is warning the public that fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills sold by drug dealers have made their way to North Dakota and are contributing to a substantial rise in overdoses for the city.

The agency recorded 91 overdoses in Fargo last year, nearly triple the number reported in 2019. It’s the highest number since 2016, when overdoses skyrocketed to 70 as an opioid addiction epidemic surged across the United States.

“Many of them are dying,” Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski said.

Of the 91 overdoses, 18 people died last year, up from 11 in 2019. That was the second highest death toll over the last five years, behind 2017’s count of 20 fatalities.

Multiple overdoses were connected to pills bearing markings similar to 30-milligram pills of the prescription pain killer oxycodone, police said. The small round blue pills have the letter “M” on one side and the number 30 on the other. The agency said it didn’t know the exact number of overdoses caused by the pills.

M30s are “extremely dangerous” because of the fentanyl’s potency, the department said. Some pills were sold as oxycodone, with victims unknowingly ingesting fentanyl, Fargo Police Narcotics Unit Sergeant Matt Christensen said.

Most of the overdoses involved people between the ages of 20 and 45, Christensen said. The department also has seen some overdoses that involved mixtures consisting of multiple drugs, Zibolski said.

There are likely overdoses the department isn’t aware of, Zibolski said. The agency’s numbers reflect calls to which officers responded. Some people who overdose are revived by family or friends, and the police department may not be made aware of those cases, he said.

Officers administered Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose, 16 times in 2020 and five times so far this year, spokeswoman Jessica Schindeldecker said.

Overdoses started to rise in 2019, and numbers suggest the trend could continue into 2021, Zibolski said. As of Friday, nine people in Fargo overdosed, including two who died, the police department said. Only two people overdosed in the first three weeks of last year, according to the agency. That included one death, it said.

“The trend is continuing in a very dangerous direction,” he said.

Law enforcement in Fargo and Cass County is pursuing drug traffickers who are bringing the pills to the area, Christensen said. Investigations have linked the pills to California and potentially Mexico, Zibolksi said. Where the pills are being manufactured remains unclear, Christensen said.

The Police Narcotics Unit and Cass County Drug Task Force seized nearly 1,600 pills last year, Christensen said.

Officers have arrested several individuals in connection to M30 trafficking, but Fargo Police declined to say how many, citing a need to protect the course of the investigation.

Fargo is not alone when it comes to a rise in drug-related deaths, Zibolski said. Other states are seeing their numbers climb, he said.

The U.S. reported more than 81,000 overdoses over a 12-month period ending in May, the highest number ever recorded for that length of time, according to a Dec. 17 news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It cited synthetic opioids, including manufactured fentanyl, as the primary driver of those numbers.

The increase started before the coronavirus hit the country, though the CDC appears to have tied an acceleration in overdoses to the pandemic.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

Zibolski noted legislation to enhance penalties for drug traffickers who contribute to a fatal overdose.

“Just like anyone else who takes a life in the commission of a crime, they should face an enhanced penalty as well,” he said of traffickers who sell drugs users overdose on and die.

The department will focus on pursuing criminals, but it is important to have services available for addicts who want help, he said.

Those with information about the distribution of M30s or other drugs in Fargo have been asked to contact the narcotics unit at 701-235-4493. They also can submit a tip using the police department’s phone app or by texting the information to 847411 with the keyword FARGOPD.

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