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Pills with fentanyl are coming into the Mountain West via the border with Mexico. They're cheap, deadly and expanding rapidly. We look at how they got here, what's being done and possible solutions.

About This Series: The Mountain West And Its Growing Problem With Fentanyl

I started reporting this series on fentanyl months ago, and I expect to continue following it for months – or years – to come.

Here’s the short version: Pills that are laced with fentanyl or contain nothing but fentanyl are coming into the Mountain West via the border with Mexico. About a quarter of the fentanyl pills seized by the DEA have had enough fentanyl to kill.

Fentanyl is an extremely potent and cheap man-made opioid. It’s effective for pain management and is used in hospitals every day. But without proper equipment, it’s hard to measure and easy to overdose on.

Prosecutors and police are trying to stop the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. and to arrest dealers, though some groups argue that this is just another continuation of a failed drug war.

There are some solutions out there, like fentanyl test strips and gathering better data on fentanyl-related overdoses. But even with these low-hanging fruit, there are legal and logistical hurdles to overcome.

Plenty of interesting stories didn’t make it into this series. That includes how fentanyl-related drugs aretemporarily classified as Schedule I substances, like heroin or (controversially) marijuana and peyote. That classification means there’s no known medical use for a highly-addictive substance, and it can influence how the drugs are policed and studied. The Biden administration can decide whether to extend that scheduling or end it in October.

I don’t discuss how the dealers who gave musician Mac Miller fentanyl – resulting in his death – are alsofacing decades in prison. I spent hours listening to Mac Miller’s music while writing this. His NPR Tiny Desk performance was beautiful.

And finally, I didn’t get to report on those who are doling out fentanyl test strips even though they’re technically illegal in their states. I couldn’t find anyone who was cited over this, but if you have, please reach out.

I know that I missed plenty of things, too. For that, I am sorry. For those who’ve lost loved ones to fentanyl in the time that it took me to write this series, I am also deeply sorry. I hope these stories can help stop someone else from risking their lives for another pill.

For those who are struggling with addiction and are not sure where to turn, here are some resources.

SAMHSA Tips On Finding Treatment For Substance Use Disorders

HHS Resources Locators And Facts Sheets

CDC Identifying Addiction/Medications/Resource Sheets

A big thanks to the National Press Foundation, which helped educate me on opioid addiction through their fellowship program. Another thanks to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for their continued support for Mountain West News Bureau investigations. And to the editors who made this possible: Kate Concannon, Amanda Peacher and Dave Rosenthal. Couldn’t have done it without all of you.

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Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.