Channel 2 Investigates

Urgent warning issued about deadly counterfeit drug

ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News investigation revealed a powerful drug is triggering a spike in overdose deaths in metro Atlanta and across Georgia.

The drug is fentanyl, a narcotic that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Authorities say the drug is being sold on the street mixed with heroin and in pills that look like prescription pain medication.

Chuck Wilson's son obtained several pills that he says were stamped to resemble oxycodone. He overdosed and died in February 2015, after taking two of the pills.

"Well, three months later, once the autopsy report was back, we found out it wasn't oxycodone at all. It was fentanyl," Wilson said.

Fentanyl is so powerful, it’s prescribed to manage chronic pain in cancer sufferers.

Illicit drug manufacturers are disguising the pills as prescription opiate pills. Because there is no control over dosage strength, one pill can cause a fatal overdose.

Wilson, a Gwinnett County resident, says his 35-year-old son was not a drug addict and worked as a real-estate agent and athletic trainer. He says if his son had known the pills he obtained were fentanyl, he would not have taken them.

"You never expect your son is going to die before you do," Wilson said.

Wilson began an investigation to find out how many people in metro Atlanta and across the state have fatally overdosed on fentanyl.

Channel 2 also requested medical records from four core counties in Metro Atlanta: Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb.

From 2012 to 2015, the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased from 18 to 119.

Combined with statistics from the GBI on deaths outside the metro Atlanta area, the total number of fentanyl-related deaths in the same three-year period jumps to 345. The victims are not just teenagers.

"I found there was a young attorney, there was a young physician. You're talking about one or two every day," Wilson said.

In January, law enforcement authorities in Tennessee seized hundreds of pills marked to resemble Percocet, but instead contained fentanyl.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation warned illicit manufacturers and drug dealers are preying on people who are addicted to opiate pain medication.

The epidemic rise in fentanyl-related deaths and seizures across the country has drawn the attention of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In October, the CDC issued a health advisory.

"This fentanyl is being produced in illegal laboratories around the world and is making its way into this country," said CDC Medical Officer Dr. John Halpin.

The CDC recommended improved detection of fentanyl outbreaks to increase medical response and wider availability and use of naloxone, an effective antidote to all opiate-related overdoses.

The Drug Enforcement Administration also has issued a nationwide alert identifying fentanyl as a threat to public health and safety.

Chuck Wilson said his son's death has not been fully investigated, largely because of a lack of local and state police resources.

He is committed to getting the word out on the danger of fentanyl-filled counterfeit pills to spare other parents the anguish that he struggles with every day.

"There's not an hour that goes by that you don't think about it," Wilson said.