Concerns are growing over something that's being called the "kill pill" – drugs laced with fentanyl, one of the most powerful prescription painkillers in the world.
Pills laced with fentanyl were linked to Prince's death earlier this year. According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incidents of law-enforcement officers finding drugs containing fentanyl have jumped 426 percent from 2013-2014, the latest figures available.
This week, the Houston Forensic Science Center released a warning of a dangerous spike in the city. James Miller, manager of the controlled substances division, says that since the beginning of the year, they've already identified the presence of fentanyl in 10 cases in the Houston area. And it isn't the first time fentanyl has been a problem.
"This is a nationwide issue – the presence of fentanyl – and it reoccurs every few years that we'll see fentanyl in the illicit market," Miller says.
The drug is an opioid analgesic – like Vicodin or morphine, but much more potent. Miller says fentanyl is up to 100 times as potent as morphine, and used primarily as a surgical anesthesia or for pain management in terminally ill patients. But now it's making its way into street drugs.
Miller says that in the past, heroin has been cut with fentanyl to increase the potency when supplies were low. But now, fentanyl is showing up in other drugs as well, and users likely don't know that what they're taking is laced with the potent painkiller.
"It appears that the people who are abusing these substances have no knowledge that [fentanyl is] actually what's contained in these tablets," he says, "and that's why we see this as such a threat to those who are using or abusing drugs."
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the drug is coming from, Miller says – in past incidents, its source has been identified as a small lab in Mexico. Now, Miller says it appears to be coming from China.
"It's going to have to be a concerted effort between local law enforcement and national law enforcement, and ultimately international law enforcement," he says.