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In our opinion: Local authorities uncover massive and dangerous illegal drug operation

FILE "” Two men in chemical suits exit the residence as local and federal agencies respond to a fentanyl making lab bust in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016.
FILE "” Two men in chemical suits exit the residence as local and federal agencies respond to a fentanyl making lab bust in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The recent arrest of a Salt Lake County man accused of distributing an enormous number of counterfeit opioid drugs produced at a homemade “pill mill” is the latest example of a problem that is becoming a major challenge for law enforcement, while afflicting many families across the country, often with deadly results. According to police, the suspect obtained an illicit supply of the powerful narcotic fentanyl in powder form from China and pressed it into pills made to look like legitimate prescription painkillers. Officers confiscated 70,000 pills and more than $1 million in cash, presumably the fruits of a nationwide online trafficking enterprise.

The alleged operation is stunning in its scope but only one of many similar schemes flourishing in the dark marketplaces of the internet. While it’s good to see law enforcement aggressively attacking such operations, a solution to the problem lies mostly on the user end. Parents and all people need to be aware of the fatal dangers of substances that are too easily obtained and too frequently abused by adults and, increasingly, young people.

Indeed, news of this most recent arrest is not quite a wake-up call given that problems associated with addiction to narcotic opioids are well documented and publicized. Every month, about 35 people die in Utah from an opioid overdose. A survey by the state health department in 2014 showed that more than 4 percent of the total population over age 12 admitted to abusing opioid narcotics. The fatality rate rose 400 percent between 2000 and 2014. This adds up to a serious public health problem that has only been made harder to address by the many ways illicit dealers can ply their trade through new technology.

It is apparently fairly easy to obtain dangerous narcotic compounds over the internet from overseas sources. Police in Park City believe two teenage boys who died in September had overdosed on a synthetic narcotic substance known on the streets as “Pink,” which officers believe was mailed to a private household from a laboratory in China. The case prompted officers to encourage parents to be intimately familiar with what their children are doing online and be vigilant about packages that might show up on the doorstep. It is sound advice, not only because abuse of such substances may be more prevalent than parents think, but also because they are so terribly dangerous.

In the case of the drug raid in Cottonwood Heights, the fentanyl the suspect used as the base ingredient in his counterfeiting operation is a hundred times more potent than heroin. Merely touching the substance can be fatal. It required a team of trained hazardous-materials crews to take down the laboratory. Police say the suspect pressed fentanyl into pills made to resemble oxycodone and other painkillers and sold them on the black market to any number of people. The federal DEA agent in charge of Utah said, as a result of likely overdoses, "It would be very safe to say people have died from this operation."