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N4T Investigators: Counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl turning up in Tucson

The numbers are staggering: In the past year alone, suspected opioid overdoses killed more than 1,500 people in our state.

As the News 4 Tucson Investigators have learned, addicts who turn to the streets for their fix are ending up with more than they bargained for. Sometimes the consequences are deadly.

“It was pretty bad. To the point where, you know, I ended up doing some time in prison for it,” said Danny Howe, a former drug dealer and addict who has turned his life around.

Before spending four years in state prison, Howe told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, he would trade ecstasy for prescription drugs like oxycodone.

“I’d get a bottle of 250 pills at a time, you know, for a couple of my ecstasy pills, and we were just, kind of, taking them all day, every day,” Howe told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

Now, Howe owns and operates The Earnest House, made up of two halfway houses that provide a safe environment for people who are trying to get clean.

“By me walking through that path, I think I’m in a position to help them overcome the hurdles that they’re going through,” Howe told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

For people battling opioid addiction, turning to the streets to get their fix is increasingly dangerous.

In recent months, the News 4 Tucson Investigators have learned of counterfeit drugs being sold on the streets. Authorities say dealers pass them off as oxycodone or Xanax. Instead, the pills contained fentanyl – a drug that can be 50 times more powerful than heroin.

“They don’t understand that what they’re getting is not safe,” said Tucson Police Captain, John Leavitt, who heads the Counter-Narcotics Alliance in southern Arizona.

Authorities also told the News 4 Tucson Investigators that fentanyl is smuggled into the United States from Mexico. The drug is mixed with other chemicals, and being sold to unsuspecting addicts who looking for other drugs, such as oxycodone.

“The profit that’s available for someone who is going to take fentanyl and make a prescription drug that’s then marketed is just enormous,” Captain Leavitt told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

In fact, the Counter-Narcotics Alliance tells the News 4 Tucson investigators, in the past18-months of buying narcotics on the streets, the results were the same. 

“Everything we’ve bought is actually a counterfeit pill made with fentanyl,” Leavitt told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

Doctor Aaron Wilson, Chief Medical Officer at Sierra Tucson told News 4 Tucson Investigators, for addicts looking to the street to buy oxycodone or other drugs, the consequences could be deadly.

“Somebody’s first experience with a synthetic opioid could be their last,” Doctor Wilson told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

Wilson adds, he has seen a spike in the number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction. For some, their addiction may have started a legitimate need for prescription pain-killers.

“Maybe over time, they lost the ability to pay for those, and they started getting them off the streets. We hear that time and time again,” Wilson said.

Wilson also told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, people who are chasing their next high, are most likely looking for a way to deal with deeper issues. 

“Addiction is not usually on an island, right? There’s usually some depression, some anxiety. I would say a huge proportion of patients have trauma,” Wilson told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

That is one reason why Sierra Tucson works so hard to identify and treat the root cause of a person’s addiction, rather than having the patient just go through a detox program.    

“If you don’t do treatment, they leave a Detox center, and they go back out and use, without that tolerance, it’s even more dangerous for them, because if they relapse on those previously used amounts, you know, it could be fatal,” Wilson said.

Howe added that it’s important for addicts to get help, and do what they can to get clean.

“Try to get off of it. Try to live that lifestyle away from it, so that way you can be functioning and happy, and get back on track,” Howe told the News 4 Tucson Investigators. 

If you have something you would like the News 4 Tucson Investigators to investigate, email us at, or call the News 4 Tucson Investigators tip-line – at 955-4444.


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