SC: A growing problem in SC’s drug trade, pill presses are largely unregulated

The Post and Courier News –

GREENVILLE —As officers searched a Simpsonville home in June, they encountered a familiar scene.

Among nearly a pound of fentanyl, ounces of crack cocaine and ecstasy, bags of marijuana and stacks of cash in the modest, one-story house, were two metallic contraptions, each about a foot high.

Investigators with Greenville County’s Drug Enforcement Unit recognized the collection of wheels, bars and tubes set on square bases immediately: pill presses.

Despite the role they’ve come to play in South Carolina’s drug trade, the devices are not illegal under state law and are only loosely regulated on a federal level.

The June search of that house off of a country road in Simpsonville came about a month after the officers began investigating reports that an operation there was flooding Greenville County with thousands of pills, according to a report from the DEU.

The machines they found can be used to cut drugs like fentanyl, heroin and meth with powder or other narcotics, compress them, and make them look like any other prescription drug. Clandestine manufacturers often even use molds to mark them with common pharmaceutical logos to complete the counterfeit.

Without the necessary equipment, it’s virtually impossible to tell what the pills actually contain and in what quantity, which makes accidental overdoses more likely. A DEU annual report stated a large number of the county’s overdoses in 2019 were caused by what investigators call “blues” — small, circular tablets of fentanyl named for their color. Blues are the most common black market pill produced in Greenville County, the report said, but the machines can be used to make various shapes, including miniature bears and “other characters.”

Pressing drugs into pills makes them easier to transport, hide and sell.

“These criminal groups, they go where the most money can be made,” said DEU Commander Bart McEntire.

Instances of dealers using presses like the ones found during the Simpsonville bust to produce their own black market pharmaceuticals are becoming more frequent in the Upstate and beyond.

All at-home chemists need to get one of the machines, some of which can produce 5,000 pills an hour, is a credit card and an internet connection. Overseas companies manufacture and sell the presses online for anywhere from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands. Most of those found in the Upstate have come from companies in China.

“It’s been a growing problem over the years that continues to get bigger and bigger,” McEntire said. “We’ve seen more criminal groups move into it and some of the pill presses we’ve seen in operation we know are related to gang activity.”

In 2020 alone, the Greenville County DEU has seized eight presses from large-scale, clandestine manufacturing operations. Nationally, the number of unregistered pill presses seized at international mail facilities each year has steadily increased, with about 19 times more taken in 2017 than 2009, according to data from Customs and Border Protection.

Even with the increase, the chance of “seizure of unregistered pill presses is minimal,” as they enter the country, a DEU report stated.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently created regulations that require anyone who sells or buys a pill press to report the transaction and register the machine with the agency. But the responsibility to make those reports falls almost entirely on the parties involved in the sale.

“I would say it’s self-regulation. That’s how I would define it,” McEntire said.

Even if someone is found in possession of an unregistered pill press, it is at most a regulatory violation that carries no jail time, according to a collaborative 2019 report by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and the Partnership for Safe Medicines.

In South Carolina, as in many other states, there are no laws against owning and operating an unregistered pill press.

“If I go in and find an unregistered pill press and all of the information indicates it’s a drug operation, but there’s no narcotics or controlled substances, there’s really nothing I can do,” McEntire said.

The binding agents — chemicals used to mix the drugs and help them hold their shape — are also largely unregulated and can be bought from the same companies that sell presses or found online. During the bust in Simpsonville, investigators found 11 pounds of binding agent with the presses and narcotics.

In order to address the growing problem, McEntire said, officials need to reassess the laws and regulations around the presses and create a stronger reporting system for importing and exporting the equipment.

“It’s a problem in the law, to me, as someone who works in narcotics,” McEntire said. “As a corporation, I can ship binding agents, pill presses in here all day long and there’s no reporting system. So if you had a reporting system that had some teeth behind it, at least law enforcement would know who’s receiving these things.”

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