Buchanan County Drug Strike Force Capt. Shawn Collie holds two bags of pills believed to be placed with fentanyl Friday at the drug strike force office. Fentanyl-laced drugs are a growing concern in Northwest Missouri, Collie said.

Fentanyl-laced marijuana is a growing issue on the East and West coasts, and Buchanan County Drug Strike Force officers believe it’s only a matter of time until the issue reaches this area.

The drug strike force is having issues with other drugs being laced with fentanyl, Capt. Shawn Collie said, and it’s especially bad this year. DSF has seized around 5,000 pills believed to have fentanyl in them during 2021.

“The pharmaceutical pills, the marijuana, etc., you know, if you’re not purchasing those through the legal distributors, then you have no idea what you’re getting,” he said. “If you’re buying stuff on the street from street dealers, or you’re getting it from somebody you think might be a friend or you think might be trying to hook you up with some type of drug, you have no idea what is in that.”

Dealing with drugs is risky even for drug dealers and law enforcement, said Miles Aley, an assistant special agent in charge with the St. Louis Drug Enforcement Administration branch. One in four pills using fentanyl contains a lethal dose, making it a huge gamble, he said.

"A lot of times we don't know what we've seized for months until the lab report comes back and tells us what actual substances were found, especially when we're dealing with powders," Aley said. "Frequently the drug dealers themselves don't know what they're selling. That's especially true of counterfeit pills, which we're seeing more and more of."

That's led the DEA to change how it deals with drug seizures. Testing drugs in the field is less common than five years ago, Aley said, and agents use special protective gear in a controlled environment when they do perform field testing.

Overdose deaths have been a major concern in St. Joseph this year. There were 48 autopsies performed by Buchanan County's medical examiner from January to August. Thirteen of those cases, or 27.1%, were caused by overdoses.

The issue isn't limited to St. Joseph. Fentanyl-related overdoses are skyrocketing everywhere, Aley said.

"That is consistent throughout the state and throughout the United States," he said. "We're in an epidemic of opioid addictions and overdoses."

The biggest factor in combating fentanyl-laced drugs, and preemptively striking at laced marijuana, is educating residents, Collie said.

"We try to start with the education and making the people aware," Collie said. "Then obviously our next step is going to be trying to work with different organizations. It may be working with ... the dispensaries now, we have medical marijuana in Missouri."

Drug treatment is difficult if addicts stay in the same environment that facilitates their use. Addicts have to remove themselves from those circumstances to prevent situations that might hinder their progress, said Robert Corder, a doctor with The Center, A Samaritan Center.

"In order for someone to be successful in the drug treatment, they've got to get rid of their 'friends' that they partied with, their drug dealer, you know, they should not have contact with those people," he said. "That's hard to do in a town the size of St. Joe. It's not that big a town."

The most effective means of educating the masses might be starting with grade-school students, who are more likely to be just starting to experiment with drugs, Corder said. He suggests it would help to have young adults visit classrooms to speak with students and try to communicate their own experiences.

Alex Simone can be reached at alex.simone@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter at @np_simone.

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