State law enforcement and health officials warned the public Monday of the rising dangers from counterfeit pills.

These pills look identical to prescription drugs such as Xanax and oxycodone. However, they are often laced with dangerous substances such as fentanyl.

“One pill can kill,” Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, said in a news conference Monday morning. “Do not take pills that were not prescribed to you from your provider and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.”

In 2020, 3,032 Tennesseans died from overdoses, a 45% increase from 2019, according to Piercey. This increase was larger than the national increase of 30%.

Piercey said the state has been investigating overdose outbreaks similar to the way it investigates an outbreak of a virus. If multiple overdoses are happening in the same area, state officials begin contact tracing to find the source. Many times, the overdoses stem from a “bad batch” of pills.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain bad batches led to an increase in overdose deaths, Piercey said.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch said counterfeit pill dealers are profiting from other people’s addictions.

“Another possibility is that adversarial nation-state actors may also be using these deadly fakes as a way to intentionally kill Americans,” Rausch said.

Later, he explained that the majority of illegal fentanyl entering the country comes from nation-state actors in China who are partnering with cartels in Mexico and other nations.

“We have direct evidence in investigations that we have done that puts that together,” Rausch said.

TBI forensic scientists have estimated that half of the oxycodone pills taken as evidence do not contain oxycodone, Rausch said.

“If you’re buying pills on the street in our state, you’re gambling with your life,” he said.

The TBI has task forces across the state that investigate who provides the public with counterfeit drugs.

Tommy Farmer, from the TBI’s Dangerous Drugs Task Force, demonstrated some of the tech the TBI uses to safely investigate overdoses.

One machine uses a swab of a trace amount of a substance to identify its components. There are also test strips that turn different colors to alert agents to what they might be dealing with.

Nationwide, over 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, according to Brett Pitts, the resident Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Nashville.

This year, Pitts said, the DEA has already seized over 9 million counterfeit pills. Over 7 million of these counterfeits contained fentanyl.

Last month, the DEA issued a nationwide public safety alert about fake prescription pills.

While the message about overdoses was sobering, officials emphasized that there is hope and a life after addiction and overdose.

Across the state, Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists provide free training and overdose prevention in communities.

Since the ROPS program began in 2017, workers have distributed over 232,000 units of naloxone and saved over 30,000 lives, said Marie Williams, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

One of the prevention specialists, Andrea Hancock, said her own son overdosed several months ago, but his life was saved thanks to naloxone.

Naloxone is a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose. It is available in easy-to-carry formats, and anyone in Tennessee can use it after getting simple online training.

“The bottom line is naloxone saves lives. People are dying, and we have an antidote,” Hancock said.

Law enforcement officials across the state have started carrying naloxone. In Nashville, Metro Nashville Police Department officers have carried naloxone since 2017.

Nashvillians can get naloxone without a prescription from a pharmacy. If they are unable to obtain it that way, they can get it from ROPS, Hancock said.

“I look at naloxone as one more,” Hancock said. “One more opportunity to have a birthday. One more opportunity to have time to get into recovery.”

Individuals in active addiction can find help by calling or texting the Tennessee Redline at 1-800-889-9789.

“Your life has meaning, and your life has hope,” Williams said.

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