COEUR d’ALENE — Gone are the days of buying drugs from unknown dealers on the street.
Trawling the dark web isn’t necessary, either — not when individuals can connect with local and faraway dealers on messaging apps popular among young people.
With deadly fentanyl-laced pills flooding North Idaho and the drug trade booming on social media, local law enforcement wants teens and parents alike to understand the dangers of these substances.
“This isn’t (teens) finding shady dudes on a street corner,” Idaho State Police Capt. John Kempf said. “They’re finding shady dudes on their phones.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, especially after surgery.
The prevalence of fentanyl in North Idaho is relatively recent.
The first time Kempf encountered it was in 2019, during a Post Falls drug bust where police seized large quantities of black tar heroin — then the predominant illicit opioid — as well as around 8,000 fentanyl pills.
At the time, there wasn’t a demand for fentanyl.
“They couldn’t sell (the pills), so they mixed them in with heroin,” Kempf said.
Now the substance is flooding the local market.
About one in six counterfeit pills circulating in North Idaho contains a lethal dose of fentanyl, according to the Coeur d’Alene Police Department.
Illicit drugs are often diluted with cheaper materials in order to stretch the product.
Because it’s less expensive to produce than other opioids, fentanyl is a popular choice to mix with other drugs, like heroin and meth.
There’s no quality control when it comes to counterfeit pills.
One pill can have a dose that gets someone high, while another from the same batch contains enough fentanyl to kill the user.
“You can smoke half a pill now and half later and the second half has the deadly dose that kills you,” Kempf said.
In 2019, there were 24 overdose-related deaths in Kootenai County.
That number spiked in 2020, when 33 people died due to drug overdoses. Of those deaths, eight were fentanyl-related.
A total of 33 people died due to overdoses in Kootenai County last year — with 16 deaths tied to fentanyl, twice as many as the year before.
Five of those deaths occurred in the same week.
Among them was a 15-year-old Lake City High School student, who died after taking a counterfeit pill made to look like legitimate medication.
Fentanyl pills — called “mexis” or “mexi-blues” — are stamped to look like prescription narcotics like Oxycontin or Xanax.
While some people intentionally seek mexis, others believe they’re purchasing legitimate prescription pills.
Teens and other new drug users are especially vulnerable to deception.
“As late as this summer, we had dealers selling to kids, advertising their pills as legitimate and not mexis,” Kempf said.
Word is spreading about the dangers of fentanyl — but it’s virtually impossible for users to know for sure if the pills they purchased contain the substance.
Fentanyl is tasteless, odorless and too small to see. There is no way to know if a substance contains a potentially lethal amount of fentanyl by looking at it.
Drugs acquired from “trusted sources” are not safer than drugs bought from strangers. Pills are laced with fentanyl long before they reach the dealers, friends and acquaintances who dole them out.
Kempf said young people are often more inclined to experiment with pills than other forms of opioids.
Taking pills carries less stigma than smoking or injecting drugs, Kempf said, making the mental hurdle easier to get over.
“It’s a pill, not a needle,” Kempf said.
Exacerbating the issue is easy access to illegal pills via social media.
Though different social networking platforms wax and wane in usage, ISP Detective Tim Snell said the messaging app Snapchat has remained consistently popular among teens — and drug dealers.
The app lets users post and exchange pictures and videos that disappear after they’re viewed.
Snell said dealers on Snapchat use emojis and coded language to let friends and followers know what they’re selling.
“Snapchat’s structure makes it easy,” he said.
To crackdown on the sale of counterfeit pills on the platform, Snapchat developed new tools and educational content in 2021.
The company said improvements to detection tools — which use artificial intelligence to identify pictures, words and emojis related to drug sales — allowed Snapchat to increase the number of accounts removed by 112% in the first half of 2021.
Snell said dealers also use encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram and WhatsApp, to shield themselves from detection.
Though the apps are not inherently nefarious, Snell advised that parents be aware of their teens using multiple encrypted messaging apps.
It could be a red flag, he said — and it could be a starting point for a vital conversation about the dangers of illicit pills.
“It has to start with parents,” said ISP Detective Jess Stennett. “Have a conversation with your kids. Educate each other about what’s going on in your lives.”
Parents should also watch out for drug paraphernalia, such as burned tinfoil.
Young people are living in an uncertain and rapidly-changing world, Kempf said, amid a pandemic that’s disrupted all aspects of life.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a kid now,” he said.
That’s why teens need support and good information from their parents.
Education is key, Kempf said — and so are resources to help people struggling with substance abuse.
“We need to have rehabs and ways to treat people,” he said.
Snell said fighting the opioid crisis in North Idaho is an uphill battle — one that law enforcement can’t tackle alone.
It will also take cooperation and support from local public health agencies and from people at an individual level.
“Opioid addiction is extremely powerful, more than people who don’t struggle with it can understand,” he said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
ISP offers informational presentations about the fentanyl crisis to groups in North Idaho.
To organize a presentation, contact Capt. John Kempf: 208-243-4287.