CBS 5 INVESTIGATES (CBS 5) - A small blue pill, meant to resemble Percocet, is wreaking havoc on communities across Arizona. It is killing teenagers and leaving others with lasting brain damage. And the problem is likely to get worse, according to multiple interviews with police, fire and medical professionals who are following the situation.
The pills, known on the street as "M-30s," are laced with the drug fentanyl. It's a synthetic opioid, which is 100 times stronger than morphine, according to Dr. Frank LoVecchio of the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center.
"Now we see it every day," said LoVecchio.
He compares taking an M-30 to playing the game Russian Roulette.
"This one you’re going to die from. This one you’re not going to die from. And you’re relying on a drug dealer to actually be a chemist," said LoVecchio.
The problem is that no two pills are made the same because they are thought to be manufactured in garages or clandestine labs in Mexico.
"From what I’ve been told from kids, it's south in Mexico. You know, they’re being made down there in some lab," said Benjamin Gomez, who is a police officer in the city of San Luis, which is located on the border with Mexico in southwestern Arizona.
"The thing is, there’s some chemist there dropping each little drop into these pills. And sometimes more than one drop will go on there and that pill will cause that (overdose)," said Gomez.
Gomez is currently assigned as a school resource officer for San Luis High School. His main responsibility is to keep the M-30 pills out of the school because San Luis is experiencing a health epidemic from fentanyl.
In all of last year, this small city of 35,000 residents experienced 16 overdoses attributed to fentanyl. In just the first month and a half of this year, police and firefighters have already responded to 15 overdoses.
"We’ve had one death already, a 17-year-old kid who overdosed on that," said Lt. Marco Santana, with the San Luis Police Department.
He says the pills are easy to smuggle across the border and readily available on the street.
"Based on what we've gathered, it's about $10 to $12 per pill," said Santana.
What is most alarming to the people of this community is who is taking the pills and dying from them.
"Actually, the majority of the calls have been teenagers. We’re looking at the high school population, 15, 16, 17-year-olds," said Luis Cabreros, who is a firefighter and paramedic with the San Luis Fire Department.
While San Luis may be experiencing an extreme effect of the fentanyl epidemic, it is by no means only affecting this part of the state.
Overdose deaths from M-30s are reported in Tucson, Prescott Valley and Phoenix. One police officer who deals with these cases told CBS 5 Investigates that officers are now assuming that every pill sold on the street is laced with fentanyl.
"Unfortunately, the stamp of the M-30 brings up a Percocet. However, if you’re getting it off the street, you don’t know," said Schmid, who is the poison informatics coordinator at Banner Poison and Drug Information Center.
Schmid believes that some patients who used to get prescriptions filled by pain doctors are now looking for drugs on the street because Arizona's opioid crackdown made it tougher to get the drugs legally.
Law enforcement officials tell CBS 5 Investigates the Sinaloa Drug Cartel saw a business opportunity. With fewer legitimate OxyContins and Percocets on the street, there was an opening for their counterfeit drugs made with cheaper fentanyl.
Some of the pills are made in Mexico, smuggled into the U.S. through the ports of entry, usually in tractor trailers or cars, then distributed through a network of dealers and pushers, according to police.
Two weeks ago, a student at the prestigious Notre Dame Preparatory School in north Scottsdale was arrested after he was accused of providing an M-30 pill to a fellow student who overdosed but is expected to recover.
First responders administered NARCAN to that student, but Dr. LoVecchio says using the opioid antidote doesn't always mean things will be fine for the person who overdosed. Fentanyl shuts down a user's respiratory system, so an overdose cuts off oxygen from the brain.
"If you’ve been down for over four to five minutes, chances are high that you’re going to have some degree of brain damage and not be the same," said LoVecchio.
The Yuma Union High School District, which governs San Luis High School, recently took the extraordinary step of equipping school health offices with NARCAN. The move was credited with saving at least one student's life.
More than 750 parents showed up for a recent San Luis High School PTO meeting, where fentanyl was on the agenda.
"Parents were wondering if the school can check backpacks, if police can bring the canine units to the school," said Ruben Escobar, who is the head of the PTO.
Escobar says the meetings are usually small, but that this one was different because of the topic.
"It's for sure an epidemic that we're facing in our small community," said Escobar.
It's an epidemic that the entire state may be just beginning to face.
If you or someone you know needs help or wants information about Fentanyl or opioids in general, you can reach the Arizona Opioid Assistance & Referral Line at 1.888.688.4222.