Fentanyl overdoses continue to rise in Clackamas County as drug dealers connect with victims through social media

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Pills seized by Milwaukie Police Detectives during an ongoing investigation were purported to be 30 mg of Oxycodone, but in reality are counterfeit pills containing Fentanyl. Image provided by Milwaukie PD.
Pills seized by Milwaukie Police Detectives during an ongoing investigation were purported to be 30 mg of Oxycodone, but in reality are counterfeit pills containing Fentanyl. Image provided by Milwaukie PD.

City of Milwaukie Police Chief Luke Strait updated Clackamas County Public Health Officials this summer on the persistent rise of local overdose deaths caused by opioids, especially fentanyl, and how these drugs are being obtained. 

Chief Strait described the increasing spike in drug-dealing activity happening over popular social media channels regularly used by young people.

“Opioids, benzodiazepines and fentanyl are becoming much more common throughout communities in Clackamas County, and increasingly common not only with adults but with juveniles as well,” said Chief Strait.

Sometimes called “Blues” for their color or “M30s” for the stamp that makes them look like a pharmaceutical-grade pain medication, these seemingly safe-looking little pills—easily “popped” rather than injected—are killing younger people.

“Because Fentanyl can be a cheaper option, which can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, the risk of overdose when using it intentionally or unknowingly in counterfeit pills is very high. When buying drugs illegally, the purchaser is never certain what is in them and the results can quickly become fatal,” said Chief Strait.

Clackamas County Public Health officials report a sustained increase in overdoses related to both prescription and illicit opioids, which are highly addictive both physically and psychologically.

“Law Enforcement is adapting to the use of a variety of social media platforms such as Facebook Messenger and Snapchat as avenues to purchase drugs illegally,” said Chief Strait.

According to Chief Strait, predatory individuals tend to gravitate to encrypted platforms because content is automatically erased.

The county’s Public Health Division and Opioid Task Force are forming a multi-agency collaboration to understand all of the circumstances related to the increase in overdoses in Clackamas County and the Tri-County area.

“The risks these drugs pose will continue to require data-led, collaborative approaches, which must include education, prevention, treatment, and prosecution,” said Chief Strait. 

Both fatal and non-fatal overdoses resulting from the use of fentanyl, heroin, and oxycodone have been on the rise since 2020.

 “It’s common for law enforcement throughout Clackamas County to be responding to assist paramedics on overdose calls and some of the data provided by Clackamas County’s Public Health Division is alarming,” said Chief Strait. 

According to Clackamas County Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present, “Over the last year we’ve seen several spikes in overdoses with many of the recent fatalities attributed to illicit fentanyl.”

Dr. Present warns against consuming any pill not obtained directly from a pharmacy and recommends to anyone who uses drugs or knows someone who does, to carry multiple doses of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

Local experts are concerned about impacts to the community resulting from social media platforms used to deal drugs as more youth are turning to online interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Makayla Johnson of the community-based organization Todos Juntos learned the student population is able to obtain controlled substances easily on social media.

Johnson, who collaborates with community partners to work directly with local youth, explained to a Public Health official that youth are obtaining drugs and tobacco through Snapchat by adding a person who sells drugs as a friend and sending them a specific emoji.

Johnson said this is a growing issue in many places, as these sales have been challenging for parents and law enforcement to monitor.

Clackamas County Sherriff’s Office officials reported a recent Snapchat drug storefront video taken from an 18-year-old drug dealer’s social-media feed downloaded from a Dropbox address. Investigators posting as buyers arranged a deal with the 18-year-old who, along with four younger teenagers, was taken in to custody without incident.

Clackamas County Sheriff’s Captain Marc Wold said that handling fentanyl is a risk for anyone exposed to it in any form because it can enter the system through skin contact.

“Buying pills on the street is a dangerous and deadly trap,” said Captain Wold, who oversees criminal drug investigations for the Sherriff’s Office. “Having a tolerance to opioids or other prescription medications will not help someone if they are exposed to too much fentanyl.”

“Even if it’s your first time and your body is young and strong, you are no match for the powerful effects of fentanyl, said Captain Wold. “If you watch someone else take the same pills or you have taken pills from the same batch, don’t assume you are taking the same dose or will have the same reaction, since you do not know how much fentanyl is in the next pill.”

Illicitly manufactured pills may look like pharmaceutical grade pills, but their content and potency are inconsistent due to unknown ingredients and proportions.

“Each pill you take is a gamble with your life,” said Captain Wold. “Your first time could literally be your last time.”

Chief Strait offered the following tips for parents to protect their children when it is often impossible to know the intentions of whom their children are really communicating with online:

  • Maintain as much open dialogue as possible with your children
  • Be very realistic about the risks and benefits of each social media platform and consider limiting the frequency, duration and amount of privacy you provide them with social media
  • If it’s age appropriate, explain the risks associated with addiction and also what counterfeit pills are
  • Watch, ask questions, listen and be fully engaged
  • Consider setting restrictions on electronics and social media
  • Consistently educate yourself on the latest trends, associated risks and emerging best practices for parents

Chief Strait said the law enforcement community within the county continues to look for new and evolving innovative techniques to investigate these crimes, while also collaborating with community partners to achieve the best outcomes.

Clackamas Fire’s Battalion Chief Public Information Officer Brandon Paxton supports law enforcement officials’ comments about the extreme risk of immediate and irreversible overdose from exposure to—including touching, inhaling or ingesting—drugs obtained from dealers off the street or online.

"These types of overdose calls can quickly become tragic for family and friends. Our goal is to prevent these tragedies from occurring by sharing the dangers of purchasing and using illegal substances," said Officer Paxton.

Opioid-related hospitalizations in Clackamas County increased 30% from the first half of 2020 to the first half of 2021, up from 137 visits to 179. Of these hospitalizations, the visits related to synthetic opioids more than doubled in that period.

Official 2021 Medical Examiner data shows 23 fatalities due to the presence of opioids in a person’s system for January and February alone. Officials are awaiting the results of another 11 pending reports for June and July overdoses. Deaths related to illicit fentanyl tripled from 2019 to 2020. The presence of opioids in the toxicology results of people who died in association with substance use increased 48% from 2019 to 2020 in Clackamas County.

Public Health Officials recommend everyone learn the signs of someone experiencing a fentanyl or opioid overdose to signal the time to call 9-1-1 then apply naloxone if available:

  • Not breathing or breathing very slowly
  • Limp body
  • Pale or blue skin, especially at the lips and fingertips
  • Non-responsive

Oregon’s Good Samaritan Law protects both the person who administers naloxone and the person who is overdosing from prosecution.

Learn more about fentanyl and opioid safety.

The Milwaukie Police Department and other local and federal law enforcement agencies are working together as the Clackamas County Inter-agency Task Force (CCITF) to reduce illegal drugs and related crimes, including child endangerment, in Clackamas County.

If you suspect an illegal drug problem in your neighborhood, contact your local police department or call the CCITF tip line at 503-557-5809, or email a completed Tip Sheet.