The little blue pills look identical to prescription oxycodone, down to the letter "M" and number "30" stamped into them.
But 500 such pills found hidden within 31 pounds of marijuana that was being shipped to a Buffalo address turned out to be laced with the deadly drug fentanyl, according to state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who held a hastily called news conference Thursday in Buffalo to warn residents about the dangerously disguised drug.
"These blue pills are death," Schneiderman said, joined by Erie County Executive Mark Polancarz and County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. Laid out on a table next to them were four bags of marijuana along with the pills carefully sealed within multiple layers of plastic and marked with a poison symbol reading "Fentanyl." An investigator with the attorney general's office wearing blue latex gloves handled the package of pills, warning reporters to keep their distance, since fentanyl is reportedly so potent even just touching it can lead to an overdose.
The intercepted shipment marked the first time law enforcement authorities have found counterfeit pills containing fentanyl made to look like a prescription opioid in Western New York.
Initial tests on the pills found that they contained varying amounts of fentanyl, some with enough for a powerful high and others with enough to kill a person in a single dose.
The pills were discovered as part of a investigation by the attorney general's Organized Crime Task Force. Schneiderman did not divulge details about the pill seizure but said that they had been shipped from the West Coast and that several recent fatal overdoses in California had been attributed to similar counterfeit pills.
While none of the pills from the intercepted shipment made it to the hands of a drug dealer, authorities believe it's likely that the deadly pills have made it to Western New York and implored opioid users to stay away from all pills being sold on the black market.
Authorities are worried that people buying the pills on the street may think they are getting a prescription opioid and that they are less likely to overdose taking those than they would be using heroin, when in fact they would face the same dangers. Illicitly produced fentanyl can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.
"If you're out there buying drugs on the street, don't," Poloncarz said. "These pills can be killers."
Illicit fentanyl has fueled the alarming rise in the number of fatal opioid overdoses in Erie County and across the country, according to public health officials.
On average, one Erie County resident has died of an opioid overdose or suspected opioid overdose every day this year.
There have been 112 confirmed fatal opioid overdoses so far this year in Erie County and another 132 suspected cases, said County Health Department Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein. Out of the confirmed 112, 83 percent of those overdoses involved fentanyl, she said.
Nationally, more than 64,000 people are believed to have died from drug overdoses in 2016, more than 45,000 of which involved opioids, according to preliminary statistics collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fentanyl was first developed as a powerful painkiller that was often given to surgical patients as a skin patch or lollipop. People abused the pharmaceutical fentanyl but in the last couple of years, illicit fentanyl produced in clandestine labs in China and Mexico found its way into the black market. The illicit fentanyl is often mixed with heroin and cocaine because it's much more powerful than heroin and is dramatically cheaper to produce. Many overdoses have been attributed to people who thought they were injecting themselves with heroin, not knowing the powder was mixed with fentanyl, which can cause almost instant death.
Pills meant to look like oxycodone and other painkillers have been found around the country. Earlier this week, Arizona law enforcement announced the arrest of a man in Maricopa County following a sting that turned up 3,500 counterfeit pills, according to azcentral.com.
In April 2016, officials in central Florida announced that the phony pills had surfaced in their communities, the Orlando Sentinel reported. "Mark my words, this 'death pill' will be in the hands of our high school-age students in Central Florida. It is bad, bad stuff that is killing people, and it is here right now," Florida Department of Law Enforcement Orlando Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks told reporters.
Erie County has a 24-hour hotline for anyone with an addiction problem seeking help: 831-7007.